In the time of COVID, it's a luxury and a privilege to take a creative writing course, taught by a poet whose work I admire, who introduces his students to the most fearless contemporary poets. I'm about three times older than any other student in this class. I don't care, because some of the most astonishing poetry I've ever heard has come from people whose age can be measured in single digits. For example:
My son Sean, age six, when we lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, driving through town after a tornado: "You can always tell twister weather because the sky has a sour taste."
Three decades later, from his daughter Virginia, age five: "Mint tastes like a thousand fireflies." + "Hearts can't bloom if there is no love."
There is something achingly beautiful about the way very young people express themselves. When do we become so self-conscious, so fearful of judgment that our creativity runs off to hide? When a poet's age is measured in single digits, I attribute their gift to innocence. When the poet is old enough to know better and not care, I marvel at their courage.
Take Richard Siken. This poet is not for the faint of heart. If you're squeamish, gird your loins and read him anyway; you'll be better off for it. Start here, with his poem "Little Beast."
In this poem, Siken begins by painting an innocent small-town scene. "The radio aches a little tune that tells the story of what the night / is thinking" suggests longing and desire, and I could almost hear my mirror neurons strike up the opening strains of a Springsteen ballad. Like a spider that cocoons its prey in silk before it injects the toxin, the poet tells us the night is "thinking of love" and then turns savage without warning, using personification to describe a night that promises love inseparable from brutality. Now I'm hooked, understanding that violence is to come but unable to look away. When I learn that this night that is "thinking of love" is also "thinking of stabbing us to death / and leaving our bodies in a dumpster," a sense of recognition accompanies the horror. Who hasn't experienced love as a sort of human sacrifice, when you'd cut yourself on the knife's edge of danger just to feel so intensely alive?
Do you know this feeling? Are you brave enough to write about it? Please try. Maybe you'll surprise yourself. Maybe you'll give the world a gift.