Years ago while working on my MFA at Drew University, my mentor Ross Gay cautioned me of something he referred to as “poetic gesture.” He wanted to warn me of moments when I was trying to make a poem sound like a poem. If you are trying to write what sounds like beautiful poetry, he explained, you won’t sound like yourself.
This was difficult wisdom for me to hear because I desperately wanted to write good poems, and in my head I already held a steadfast vision for that poet self. So most of our semester together passed with Ross asking me to forget what writers sounded like to figure out what I really needed to say.
What I wanted to write was compelling love poems, so he prompted me to compose one about a time when I treated a woman badly. Don’t, he said, let yourself off the hook. Eventually, I wrote of an experience I had while living in Red Bank when, out on the town one night, I ran into a girl I knew in college.
Her name was Jess. She was beautiful, personable and smart. In college, she’d had a serious boyfriend everyone loved, but now here she was single and out with a friend and it wasn’t long before I began to sense she was actually interested in me.
This, however, turned out to be short-lived. I tried to get Jess to leave her friend and come home with me. And instead of admiring her loyalty I acted a child and left the two of them on their own at the bar. She never spoke to me again.
The poem I composed around that event was titled “Consumption,” an attempt to point out my objectification of Jess as a person and a woman, creating a metaphor too for the consumption of alcohol. I could remember feeling quite satisfied with the poem coming together in the layers.
And in this poem, technically, I didn’t let myself off the hook. Ross must have seen through it. He hadn’t cared much for it. And it has taken me almost ten years of writing to figure out why. (I was hiding in those layers.) That might be the most telling lesson I learned from the time spent at Drew engaged in genuine conversations about art and poetry—people, readers, respond to honesty.
I remember a poem one of my peers wrote and shared during workshop in which she used the poem to say all the things she wanted to tell her body. It was painful, and those at the workshop were moved. Because the poem had a stark honesty that brought this woman (and all of us) to our knees.
The lyric poem, one of my students recently remarked, is one of the few places where we can speak without expecting reply. And so, it becomes a space where real honesty can exist.
As we investigate poetry again this National Poetry Month, it is worth considering that perhaps we need poems in our lives so that we are forced to turn inward, to examine ourselves as first instinct before we reflex in the outward disparagement of others.
Only recently did I write finally that poem—“Poem for R.” (the initial stands for a girl I knew in college, whom I did not want to fully name). In it, I apologize for being part of a cruel joke a bunch of boys played on her. She considered me a friend, and I had helped to humiliate her. And what really haunts me is I might never have the chance to ask her:
This poem R.
is for you
and I cry too
like you did
when the boys were laughing
I remember them
will always remember them
and if I say here now
can those tears
be mine too?
I cannot finish reading the poem without crying. Maybe one day I will have the courage to publish it in its entirety. Inside the looking glass is a scary place to be. This poem does not hide behind metaphor, does not excuse actions. It puts me directly on the hook. And in so doing it raises all sorts of fears.
It’s hard enough for an individual to look at him to herself—to examine flaws, honestly—and to not turn away from who that person really is. It’s another thing to look at our social conditioning and admit to how it affects the choices we make.
There is a man I want to be, and I want him to speak to the child inside me who keeps getting in the way. I wish he could tell him that to love completely means he must first love himself. (So make yourself worthy.) For this, I need poems.
–a previous version of this essay was published on northjersey.com
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DAVID CREWS is author of Wander-Thrush: Lyric Essays of the Adirondacks (Ra Press, 2018) and High Peaks (Ra Press, 2015)—a poetry collection that catalogs his hiking of the “Adirondack 46ers” in upstate New York. He holds an MFA from Drew University where he studied with poets Ross Gay, Aracelis Girmay, Ira Sadoff, and Judith Vollmer.
Crews serves as artist-in-residence with ARTS By The People, where he edits for Platform Review and the Platform Chapbook Series, and contributes as writing coordinator for Moving Words—a project that makes possible international collaboration among artists of prose, poetry, voice acting, and animation.