In Defense of Terrible Teenage Poetry
These kids don’t suck. You’re getting old.
“All of these kids think that they’re poets.”
I’m sitting next to an older woman, someone I’d guess is in that decade split between my parents and my grandparents.We’re waiting for a book signing to start and, in front of us, a group of teenagers are laughing and talking and writing.
They are, indeed, sharing poems.
There is scorn in her voice, a scorn that I’ve come to expect from her and her fellow white, upper-middle-class Baby Boomers who did well for themselves and, consequently, have more money than empathy for the generations that follow. I’ve learned to let it roll over my shoulders, to tune out their ramblings every time they complain about “selfies”, “screen time”, “snowflakes”, and “Poke-mans”.
I’ve read their think-pieces in Slate and on Medium, and it’s kind of tedious, but whatever. They’re entitled to their opinions. But when it comes to mocking kids for writing, I draw the line. I have to say something back.
The same old bitchfest.
The problem with poetry writing is a variation on the old “special snowflake” chestnut. Kids are writing things down and sharing them with the world on the internet, that most dastardly and frightening of inventions. Meanwhile, all of the sensible old folks are frothing in their Bran Flakes — How. Dare. You. Think. You’re. Special.
Or, to give the appearance of nuance, they critique the subject matter. “These kids are talking publicly about feelings and other personal things. You’re not supposed to talk about that stuff. It makes me personally uncomfortable.”
That usually gets paired with a lovely dash of argumentum ad antiquitatem: “Did Robert Frost write about being sad? Did Shakespeare write about heartbreak? Did Sylvia Plath write about self-injury and wanting to die?”
I guess William Carlos Williams’s plums were just plums, too.
There seems to be this line that people who weren’t born and raised on the internet seem to draw between “real things” and “internet things”. Real poetry is supposed to be published in thick anthologies that gather dust on the bookshelf. It’s supposed to be as dry and stale as an old digestive biscuit, and obscure enough that the Poetry MFAs at Iowa State get into bar brawls over its analysis.
With the internet, however, this simply isn’t true anymore. With a bit of clicking and digital witchcraft, these confounded kids can be on the same playing field as Tolkien, Millay, and the other greats. There’s no barrier to publication, there’s no barrier to sharing art with a huge number of people, regardless of its quality or merit.
And, for some reason, that terrifies these people.
Something I remember well from my teenage years are adults trying to tell kids what they are and what they aren’t.
“You’re not a poet, you’re just a kid.”
The amount of scorn hidden in those words is amazing. It’s taken them about six decades to admit that Kerouac and Ginsburg were actual poets, and not just shitty kids with bad mouths and weird poems. So, of course, those even weirder kids with their internet and their poetry can’t be poets.
If you claim that you’re something, and you practice in that direction, you are that thing. It’s that simple. There is no official POET badge, just as their is no official WRITER badge, GAY badge, or TRANS badge.
It reminds me of one of Dan Brown’s books where a NSA agent has to make an unencrypted call to her boss. She’s in dire straits, almost certainly being spied on, so she has to be careful with what she says. She begins her transmission by saying “My voice is my identity.”
It’s that simple. If someone identifies themselves in a certain way, I will take them at their word. So, if somebody tells me that they’re a poet, and all they’ve ever written is a horrible, stilted, 5–7–5 haiku that somehow manages to rhyme even though it shouldn’t, I’m still going to accept that they’re a poet. I was there once.
It’s not my job to police anyone’s identity. It’s not your job to police their identity, their aspiration, their dreams, or their art. Identity is a matter of personal conscious. We must trust people to update their own labels as necessary.
Of all the teens who are currently scribbling their feelings into composition books, it’s doubtful that many of them will write poetry their entire lives. It’s even more doubtful that any of them will turn out to be the next Maya Angelou or Robert Frost.
That doesn’t make them any less of a poet. That doesn’t invalidate their artwork or their feelings. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be encouraged to write, to share, to stand up, to speak out. And even if it’s the worst damn poem you’ve ever heard, you still snap or clap at the end.
Poetry — or even art in general — is not a closed-door, smoke-filled club of angry old men. It is an open cafe on the streets of Paris. Come grab a seat, drink a chocolat chaud, and stay as long as you’d like.
(N.b., though I focus on teenagers here, and perpetuate the long-standing digital think-piece war between Millennials and Baby Boomers, this article applies equally to any art, created however terribly, at whatever age. I’m a YA writer, so I think about and focus on teens. Occupational hazard. — Zx)