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Your Meter May Vary

My early literary experience.

We didn't have any food in the house, so my father dragged me to a Saturday morning poetry reading at the Society of Friends meeting house. He figured I could eat some brie and absorb some culture from the verse-choked air.

I was eleven, but I sat still and serious, listening with deep miscomprehension. The walls in the room were hung with a series of large, captioned photographs; the series was called “Quakers In Action.” A circle of women, with my father the only man, gave out in turn. Most read poems about families, old houses, and the veiled lusts that accompanied their lives, but I remember one woman so well that, thirteen years later, I still see her like a slide thrown on the wall, sheaf of onionskin paper in her lap. Below a picture of a smiling Quaker spooning oatmeal to a woman in a wheelchair, her deep voice intoned:

I'd seen my brother's cache of stroke mags, but Jesus this impressed me; it beat the hell out of watching a cartoon Godzilla destroy oil tankers. This woman--who looked like my Mom--was rambling on about cocks and blood. Adults, amongst themselves, had the same conversations their children did.

As my adolescence rose over the horizon, I tagged along to more readings, learning that the sexes are never more separate than in the style of their amateur verse. Bearded, shining-eyed men favored hardy poems, metaphoric poems about sailing and fishing and driving cars at night. They wrote about their cold, hard, non-hugging fathers. If male poets chose to write about nature, they made sure you knew they wore flannel and boots to the forest. They put no store in Wordsworthian lacey sleeves and velvet jackets. They admired the dignified savagery of the bear and buck, and when they wrote about giving head, the blowjobs happened in a wooded glen, both parties in heavy flannel, with bears nearby.

Women, though, might go to the podium, spout adjectives for 20 minutes and still get a round of applause, providing each syllabic accent with whining emphasis:

I swear to God it's the ghost of badly acted Shakespeare that haunts those writers. Rather than using a clean, varied meter, they mount that horse-gallop Renaissance pentameter and ride like Paul Revere.

As for the men, they all want to be rustproof lumberjacks, even if they teach high school English. They put off ironing their shirts and scribble their inner selves between the thin blue lines of spiral-bound notebooks. "One day, I'm going to quit this button-down bullshit and just go north and build a log cabin. Enough's enough." Say that every day as you put on your tie, and you'd write poetry too.

But why all the blood? (And there's a lot of feminine blood at every poetry reading I go to). My father once quoted some famous critic, whom, asked for an opinion on a book of angsty lesbian poems, sneered, "The vagina is a wound that never heals."

That's a lot of work to craft a poetic bandage. People write these poems to gain power over their own bodies and desires; a woman controls her body in its description, a man can forgive his father in verse. Like my friend's friend Jennifer said, at a bar, "never trust a woman."

The bleeding hills are my breasts
Cleft between this dripping sword.
Will forgiveness come with your cock?
Yes, forgiveness came in my blood.

I'd seen my brother's cache of stroke mags, but Jesus this impressed me; it beat the hell out of watching a cartoon Godzilla destroy oil tankers. This woman--who looked like my Mom--was rambling on about cocks and blood. Adults, amongst themselves, had the same conversations their children did.

As my adolescence rose over the horizon, I tagged along to more readings, learning that the sexes are never more separate than in the style of their amateur verse. Bearded, shining-eyed men favored hardy poems, metaphoric poems about sailing and fishing and driving cars at night. They wrote about their cold, hard, non-hugging fathers. If male poets chose to write about nature, they made sure you knew they wore flannel and boots to the forest. They put no store in Wordsworthian lacey sleeves and velvet jackets. They admired the dignified savagery of the bear and buck, and when they wrote about giving head, the blowjobs happened in a wooded glen, both parties in heavy flannel, with bears nearby.

Women, though, might go to the podium, spout adjectives for 20 minutes and still get a round of applause, providing each syllabic accent with whining emphasis:

Thrusting, heaving, thrusting, pulling,
Burning, wasting, praying
She stumbles to the oven and burns her
Painted hand on the tray.
Blood rises, from her hips, from the air, spilling
From space.
Waiting.
Fuck you, Daddy.

I swear to God it's the ghost of badly acted Shakespeare that haunts those writers. Rather than using a clean, varied meter, they mount that horse-gallop Renaissance pentameter and ride like Paul Revere.

As for the men, they all want to be rustproof lumberjacks, even if they teach high school English. They put off ironing their shirts and scribble their inner selves between the thin blue lines of spiral-bound notebooks. "One day, I'm going to quit this button-down bullshit and just go north and build a log cabin. Enough's enough." Say that every day as you put on your tie, and you'd write poetry too.

But why all the blood? (And there's a lot of feminine blood at every poetry reading I go to). My father once quoted some famous critic, whom, asked for an opinion on a book of angsty lesbian poems, sneered, "The vagina is a wound that never heals."

That's a lot of work to craft a poetic bandage. People write these poems to gain power over their own bodies and desires; a woman controls her body in its description, a man can forgive his father in verse. Like my friend's friend Jennifer said, at a bar, "never trust a woman."


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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