Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”
For this post to make any sense, you must know two things about me—first, I’ve written scraps of poetry ever since I could string a sentence together; second, for the first fifteen or so years of my life, my understanding of poetry was largely shaped by a series of children’s readers first published in 1836.
My mother taught reading and vocabulary to my siblings and I from McGuffey Readers, sturdy compilations of speeches, stories, essays, and poetry that were staples of nineteenth-century one-room schoolhouses. I was already a bookish child who liked to write—these books provided me with a stilted, elevated vocabulary and a decided taste for heavy-handed moralizing.
I was most prolific between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, where puritanical zeal and that uniquely teenage blend of angst and self-importance combined in poems I now read with equal parts mortification and delight. I recently unearthed a sixty-two-page, 15,000-word document of more than 150 poems from this era. Here, in an unflinching baring of my teenage soul, are ten of the most saccharine, twee, or cringe-inducing lines.
10. You know all ‘bout the latest rage / You read it on the Yahoo page (“World Wide Web,” 2008)
Reading this poem, which seems to have sprung from a baby boomer email chain message, makes me physically cringe. The poem, directed to a nameless internet user, bemoans an overuse of social media at the expense of “real life.” When I wrote this in 2008, we had only dial-up internet in the house, and I had no phone or social media accounts, and this poem is absolutely dripping with the superiority I felt because of this. Bonus cringe points for the lines: “Sharing pictures, sharing files / with predators and pedophiles.”
9. I’ve gotten pretty good at double-clicking / but the sink / is filled with dirty dishes (“Catatonic Today,” February 2010)
Another entry in the “technology is bad” vein, this is one of the last poems in the document. It ends with the lines “Have you heard of that new band? / They stink. / I think I have forgotten how / To think.”
8. Don’t reach for the stars / you are not fated / to messily be / incinerated (“Don’t reach for the stars.” 2010)
I managed to stretch this weak joke (reach for the stars but, like, “the actual stars”) for far too many lines—all rhyming, of course.
7. “Nothing rhymes with orange,” / said the door knob to the door hinge (“What rhymes with orange?” January 2011)
Like the last poem—this is me thinking myself far too clever and extending a weak joke into an unnecessary two-dozen lines.
6. the world so fair! the world so near! / and running by so fast… (“Summer,” September 2009)
This burst of existentialism brought on by the “golden balmy air” of a summer day shows how I was more concerned about sounding like I thought a poet sounded rather than recording my original thoughts or feelings.
5. It’s only end that comes to all / it’s only the autumn, time to fall (“Apple Leaves,” October 2009)
“Why do you tremble, apple leaves? / And why are you afraid?” starts this poem about the changing seasons, directed, of course, to the fading leaves of an apple tree. Death was a recurring theme in my teenage poems, always with the glib cheerfulness of a teenager who has never experienced it.
4. Alone in the woods a tree is dead / and only the violets cry (“Growing Out,” May 2009)
Another entry in the saccharine death category, this poem describes an old tree whose seedlings have grown up and left him on the forest floor. The poem ends with the tree… dying? It’s unclear what this means because he spends an awful lot of time bemoaning his circumstances with the violets even after having already fallen over.
3. The road goes ever on and on / You say it’s so, and so it may / But all who’ve walked it are still gone (“A Coward’s Tale,” January 2009)
My poetry phase overlapped with my Lord of the Rings phase, and quests and adventure are another common theme in these poems. As cheesy as this poem is (it references “brigands” and “hound dogs’ baying”), I’m genuinely charmed by the listing of an adventurer’s many dangers that ends with a comfortable decision not to leave. “You’ll be a hero, be in tales… But I’ll stay home, and I won’t pay.”
2. Does he like the compost pile? / Where he is in fury laying / For his cheek and mocking guile (“The Daffodil and the Dandelion,” 2007)
I adore this lengthy poem, which, in a thirteen-year-old’s earnest sincerity, tells the story of a dandelion who threatens a daffodil’s primacy in a garden, only to be plucked and tossed into—you guessed it—the compost pile. The closing lines are “In conclusions—beauty sours / Please remember if you can / Pretty petals don’t make flowers / Just as clothes don’t make the man.”
The logic of the moral lesson doesn’t quite hold—it’s not clear why beauty is the daffodil’s virtue and the dandelion’s “cheek.” On second thought, one could read some uncomfortable classism into this criticism of a weed trying to “rise above” (what does make a flower, if not pretty petals?). Perhaps this is the darker side of drawing inspiration from 1836.
1. Now I must go to plow the fields, goodbye my child, good day (“Work and play”)
I wrote this poem in pencil on a slip of cardboard somewhere around the age of nine or ten. No other poem in my sixty-two-page document so expertly captures the saccharine, Puritan spirit of the McGuffey Readers, and so I include it in full. I am left with many questions—what is this “diff’rent” fun that the father alludes to? Did it, indeed, require “labor work and toil” for the cow to jump over the moon? What permanent harm has my psyche incurred from a childhood centered on such a work-centered mentality?
Oh father dearest there you are where have you been I pray
Have you been working very hard on this fine summer’s day?
Why don’t you stop and rest a while your work will get done soon
You’re working harder than the cow who jumped right o’er the moon!
Oh child of mine I have not time to rest ‘til I am done
Now you must learn when you are grown not everything is fun
Every morning you must arise to labor work and toil
Feed the chickens, plow the fields set the water out to boil
Oh papa I had no idea that your day was so long
When I thought you had lots of fun I see now I was wrong
But I have fun also my child, though in a diff’rent way
Now I must go to plow the fields, goodbye my child, good day
I like to think I’ve grown as a poet and a writer from these early days—I’ve certainly left rhymed and bound lines behind, and I like to think I’ve also stopped the simplistic moralizing. If there is one thing that I miss, it’s how prolific and unselfconscious I was. Maybe someday I’ll bring those virtues into the twenty-first century.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).