On Student Poetry

Design by Cleo Maloney

The problem with yogurt recipes is that step one of making yogurt is already having yogurt. Yogurt can be made easily! At home! By simply adding three tablespoons of pre-yogurted-yogurt to hot milk. Behold: fermentation. How, one wonders, did they pre-yogurt the world’s first yogurt? Which came first, the bacteria culture or the bacteria culture?

This essay is not about yogurt. This essay is about ekphrasis, or the art of writing about art. It is about W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”: two good poems, fantastic poems, poems that have helped me to make better sense of my life, both written about the same painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. And this essay is also, and mostly, about poetry written by teenagers.

So I didn’t begin very well; William Carlos Williams is not so related to bacterial fermentation, unless you think of art as yogurt, and think of pre-yogurt as other art. To write poem, simply begin with painting. None of this is related to the myth of Icarus—unless you have spent considerable time editing poetry written by fifteen and sixteen-year-olds, as I have, in which case you have encountered a non-zero number of poems about Icarus containing a non-zero number of poorly thought-out similes.

These poems are tangy like Chobani. Icarus dives from the skies, his flight as hopeless as me taking a chemistry test. Or, I loved you like Icarus loves the sun / In falling, I too was burned. Some of the lines were not that bad but some of them were awful. All the gifted motherfuckers writing for my high school’s literary magazine were obsessed with Icarus flying too close to the sun; they felt they also did this by doing too much homework and going to bed too late. Sometimes they remembered that Icarus also could have died by flying too close to the water, and they took this as a sign to do even more homework and go to bed even later. I took special pleasure in tearing apart these poems: the ones in all lowercase, the ones in all caps, the ones which tried to rhyme. Especially the ones which tried to rhyme.

About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters / …how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along, writes Auden on Pieter Breugel’s Icarus. In his painting the boy is barely there. No one watches his body hit the water in the corner of the frame: not the sheep, not the birds, not the fisherman, not the sun. How everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, / But for him it was not an important failure.

A fifteen-year-old writing tell me, truly—was the view worth the fall? was irredeemably silly to me at sixteen. The sufferings of the freshman poets were not, to me, important failures. It goes without saying that I was a ridiculous hypocrite and also not very nice. I had obviously been sad and written poetry about it; that poetry was obviously terrible. The poems I wrote, currently write, have yet to write: all pretty bad. Which is fine. Why even write poetry, after reading Auden? Why write anything, when there are paintings that can show, as Williams writes, the whole pageantry / of the year… / awake tingling / with itself?

I guess the poems were useful, in that anything you read or write is useful, in that I thought about them then and still think about them now, in that it’s nice that yogurt can beget yogurt. But some yogurt is better than other yogurt. I could keep going (but everyone has their own artistic taste, just like, guess what, you can taste…yogurt!), drive the metaphor off a cliff, write something as stupid as the sunshine poems in the literary magazine. Maybe give the Icarus poem a go—kill him all over again, just to watch him fall, and hope my own failures might be so spectacular.

But even Icarus’ failure wasn’t—says Breugel, says Auden, says Williams. Lesson learned, lit mag. Let those wings melt! Stop writing! Start editing! Grow cynical toward simile! Nobody cares about your suffering, that’s what the Old Masters said, and they were never wrong—with one exception.

The teenage poets care. Narcissistically, pivotally, they care. They ruthlessly make meaning from the failures of others. When we cannot be sympathetic to our awful peers, when we cannot find sympathy for our own stupid sufferings, we can pity Icarus. We find in him our own ambition: that terrible fear of flying too low, that hideous space between what we envision and what we can do. A splash quite unnoticed, writes Williams. But what is Williams doing if not noticing? What are we doing if not making everything important?

An old idea, as old as the Old Masters: in myth, in art, we seek ourselves. We come from long lines of sulky, self-obsessed teenage poets, insistent on making yogurt from other yogurt. Good. Maybe the sugars will ferment forever. Maybe each batch will be better than the last. Maybe then everything, even the similes, even what we mean but aren’t yet good enough to say, will be understood.

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