By Will Thames
A confession- on my computer, buried under screensavers, eighth grade iTunes purchases, and calendar notifications, is a folder entitled “Shitty Poetry.” It is a simple word document, dated with each entry, and filled to the brim with rambling stream-of-conscious. It started it’s life with the name “Thoughts.”
The name change came when I re-read my words with a hindsight that made me cringe. I do not believe I am out of bounds in calling the stuff “shitty.” It is objectively rough stuff. Frankly, I also hesitated to call it “Poetry.”
In high school Language Arts, I met the obligatory poetry unit with the enthusiasm of a pig being led to slaughter. I skimmed Whitman, Dickinson, Ginsberg, and Emerson with begrudging slowness; stubbornly unaffected and refusing to budge an inch. A remote part of my brain registered that all this was supposed to make me feel... something. In the end, I could only muster enough interest to fart out the minimum five paragraphs of reflection to skate by. These master works of prose and verse struck me as, you guessed it, “shitty.”
I continued onto college, my nose turned up and my mind made up. It wasn’t until I met a man by the name of David Kramer that my resolve began to weaken. The man was/is a genius. I took two classes with him during my time in undergrad, one on Shakespeare and one on (gasp) Poetry. Kramer has a way about him of forcing your interest in a subject through sheer intelligence and reverence. He read Shakespeare like holy scripture. He unpacked Dickinson with the care of rocking a newborn baby to sleep. Most profoundly, he made me give a shit.
It was around here that the “Thoughts,” folder came to be. The text document served as an outlet when I could think of nothing better to work on. Can’t form a comprehensive sentence? Spew out the first three words you can think of. Repeat until it starts making sense. Wanna look like you’re taking diligent notes in the back of Cultural Anthropology? Instead of staring blankly at the wall, invent a short story about an time-traveling squid fighting crime. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. Just turn down your IQ by 50 points and start typing. Sometimes I’d catalog the number of windows in a room. Other times I’d try to rhyme as many words as I could with “falange.” Eventually, I found myself writing poetry. God-awful poetry. And... and I was enjoying myself??
To my credit, some of my “Shitty Poems,” aren’t total dumpster fires. Some highlights include:
“Ode to Double-Stuff Oreos.”
“Climbing Trees in State College, Pennsylvania.”
And, “If You Love Me So Much, Why Do You Keep Sticking Your Dick Where it Doesn’t Belong?”
Those last two were love sonnets in structure, incidentally. All three went through multiple edits, several combined hours of tweaking, and all are mediocre. I will literally never garner any success or attention from them yet they exist.
So why bother?
For the simple joy of making something. For the love of tinkering with words. For my own idle enjoyment. Because there was nothing better to do. The reason is secondary to the act. On paper, trying at something that will never see the light of day is pointless. It’s like rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity. You’ll get killer calves but ultimately, who cares?
In the age of social validation through social exposure, we are confusing attention with success, and vice versa. Living online demands the next ‘thing’ posted or shared be the best ‘thing’ yet. As close to perfect as possible, please. We must always top ourselves or risk obscurity on ourselves and apathy from our friends. The fact that we can map this inflated sense of perfection with likes and comments doesn’t help things. Often, it is self-worth governed by congressional approval. Who hasn’t deleted a picture or a tweet that didn’t chart as well as we’d hoped? This is not exclusively a millennial problem or even an internet problem. “Perfect,” is a fundamental part of being human. Your work is judged and subsequently measured against your previous successes. Whether you like it or not.
Not to be that liberal arts kid, but people who thrive through creativity are most severely affected by this mass-hysteria around perfection.
Perfect is a cruel god. It offers diminishing returns in exchange for sanity. It paints a pretty picture and presents an alluring promise which, ultimately, is dangled beyond human reach. Perfect a waste of time. So why are we so in love with it? Why do we strive and sacrifice for it? Why do we whisper hurtful things to ourselves when we don’t meet it?
Remember in Black Swan when Natalie Portman dives off the cliff with a self-inflicted mortal wound? “I felt it,” she says with her dying breath. “Perfect.”
Not every piece of work will be your magnum opus. Expecting to constantly best yourself strangles creativity at the source.
And so, to all my creative friends, and even those who don’t consider themselves “artists,” I say this. Write the shitty poetry. Push through the forgotten lines. Dance on the days you don’t feel inspired. Breath through the anguish. Then finish. A wise man with a warm smile and a big afro once said “We don’t make mistakes, just happy accidents.”
Because even if that manuscript doesn’t win you any awards or garner you a lick of success, you are smarter and better for having created it. Any act of creation, no matter how minute is miraculous. We lay down our own stepping stones to greatness.
So make terrible art- I beg you. The world, and you, will be better for it.