Everyone has at least one Thing in high school. Some people are athletes, some people are math geniuses, some are great dancers, or they’re hilarious, or they play Magic: The Gathering in the stairwell every day at lunch. My thing was writing love poems about people I went to school with. I wrote lots of poems about my friends and—most of all—about myself, but a large percentage of my enormous poetic output was devoted to love.
Sometimes, when I was feeling especially bold, I would name the objects of my affection in the titles of the poems, so that no confusion was possible. Sometimes I would obscure their identities so that only 95 percent of my classmates could identify the person I was swooning about. I was my school’s pre–Taylor Swift answer to Taylor Swift. Did we make out after a school dance? Were you my friend’s cute older brother? Then you got a poem, and thanks to the Xeroxed copies distributed to fellow students in our school’s poetry class, the whole world knew it. My favorite poet was Frank O’Hara (still is), and his books were full of poems addressed to specific people: his friends and lovers, many of them mentioned by name. I wasn’t a weirdo; I was following a poetic tradition!
I should clarify that I wasn’t writing poems in hopes of snagging some dreamy high school boyfriend, that perfect mix of Lloyd Dobbler and Jake Ryan who would someday make me mixtapes and give me wet, tender kisses. 90 percent of my poems were dedicated and addressed to people who couldn’t have been less interested in me. The poems were about older boys who didn’t know my name, boys who saw me as a friend, boys who had previously broken my heart. I was an equal-opportunity scribe—I wrote poems for boys I barely knew and for boys I talked to on the phone every single day.
For my best friend, with whom I’d been in love for years:
If someone is standing on the sidewalk with their head stuck down the neck of their T-shirt, trying to light a cigarette without interruption from the wind, I see you there, with all the shining lights of New York City framing your hair like a halo. Halo? Does that imply an angel? No, then, not a halo, but a big golden ring. Golden ring, does that imply wedding band? No, then, not a ring, but an aura, brilliant and glowing.
I never handed the poems over directly, as a bolder human might have done. None of the subjects ever reciprocated, but it didn’t really matter. Instead of feeling shy or ashamed about my feelings, I was proud of myself. I was a real poet, that was the way I saw it—these boys were lucky to make it onto my notebook pages, lucky to be typed up and tightened and printed and shared.
Despite my otherwise careful behavior—no hard drugs, home before curfew, the virginity I carefully preserved until college—it didn’t bother me that my passions were so public. I had been raised to believe (and still do) that one’s artistic output is above rebuke. A poem was an entirely different beast compared with a love letter, though of course I wrote both. A poem was art.
Margaret Atwood once wrote: “the real question is / whether or not I will make you immortal.” That’s how it felt, that I had the power to turn these boys, boys who would get old and become less beautiful, into timeless, perfect beings. They could have girlfriends who would make them feel good for a moment, but I could make them stay gorgeous teenagers forever.
But let me assure you, in my prosaic dealings I was not always so confident. Writing poems about people was far easier than, oh, telling them I liked them. It’s much easier to be brave on paper. You have all the time in the world to make sure that each word is exactly right, that the space on the page is right, that you’ve chosen the right title and epigraph and broken the lines just so.
I don’t think I ever actually told a boy exactly how I felt about him in person. When faced with one of my objects of (potential) affection, I either went mute or acted in the way I thought I should: like I had the world completely figured out and couldn’t care less about some albeit-dreamy high school boy. I wasn’t afraid to be smart, but I was deeply afraid of being uncool, and in my demented brain, vulnerability was the mortal enemy of cool. It kills me to think of all the love I missed out on (not just romantic love, mind you) because I was too scared to open up and be real.
Who knows how Taylor Swift feels about the frenzied speculation over her love songs, whether she finds it amusing or irritating. Does she think it’s fun to imagine her listeners piecing together details cribbed from tabloid magazines and matching them up with her lyrics? Maybe. But I’m willing to bet that for Taylor, her songs are like my high school poems and have nothing to do with anyone else. They’re not about making a scene, or publicly shaming someone who has done her wrong. I would put money on the notion that Taylor writes these songs because she has no choice—they need to come out of her, just like my thousands of love poems needed to come out of me.
The most powerful thing any of us can do is to express ourselves without thinking of the response. Though I wasn’t always as bold in my real life, I was fully present on the page. If I wanted to write a line in French about the color of your eyes, I did. If I wanted to say that you looked like a saint, I did. It might not have won me boyfriends, but sometimes when I sent my poems out into the world they were published, and won prizes, and eventually even earned me some money.
When one such poem won a prize the summer after I graduated from high school, part of the deal was that they flew me home from college to do a reading at the biggest Barnes & Noble in the city. The object of the poem turned up, of course, and smiled a bashful smile when my parents took our picture.
He was a close friend, and he knew the poem was about him and had read the poem many times before (also, his name was in the title—subtlety was never my strong suit). We’d never talked about it, not the reality of it, because he had tacitly agreed to play by the rules of calling it art. It would have crossed a line for us to admit that my feelings were real.
But by the time I did the reading, I was desperately and poetically in love with someone else, writing reams on how that boy looked when he played the saxophone. And so the reading was no longer about my former (would-be) flame. It was about me, and about the poem. In the end, that’s what always lasts, those words on the page.
It never was the boys themselves, awkward and pimpled and beautiful and smelly and smart and odd. What mattered was how I had transformed them, and myself, by writing about them. Reading the poems now, I’m struck not by the memory of the boys ambling down the hallways of my high school (though I do remember the way they looked, and their faces will always remain the most beautiful to me, even these fifteen years later.) No, what I’m struck by is how clearly I can see myself in the poems, and how grateful I am to have this most precise record of how I felt. If I hadn’t written anything down, those long-lost feelings would be a messy blur, a giant mélange of hormones and teenage lustfulness. Since I am a poet, I can track my little heart as it becomes big, always increasing to make room for the next love, and the next. ♦