Essay: Teenagers Are Not Exempt from Poetry

Kara Jackson
Prose from Poetry – an annual exchange with The Poetry Review

Being a teenager is a remarkable thing. There’s this horrible smoke about us. I like knowing I could shave my head at any moment and not feel shame. It’s the way we piss ourselves, making a quilt of our messes. Poetry is my favorite chaos. Being a teenage poet means willfully letting yourself catch fire. When I found poetry, I was still unsure how living in a body worked. The first poem I ever liked made me sweat.

It was Patricia Smith’s ‘Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah’. The poem let my adolescence be loud. The poem gave me lines to braid in my hair: “When I sent up prayers, God’s boy would giggle and consider.” I still sing the line in my head when I walk through my neighborhood. Smith escorts me to high school, and her poems wear a mean mug that ensures nobody messes with me.

Poetry has always given me a kind of urgency, a quality I nourish quite a bit. At fifteen, I could read Gwendolyn Brooks and understand the things she was running toward, the quickness in her step. The best thing I did for myself was toss the notion of poetry as a white dialect. I learned quickly that poetry does not have to be about flowers or trees when there is a poverty line, when there are hands without gloves in the winter, when there is always something we are running toward. When I understood these things, I understood poetry as something that allowed my body.

I also learned that nature is ours, too. It was Fatimah Asghar who taught me I was allowed to write about bugs. In her poem “My Love for Nature,” she gives Brown girls a chance to have a complicated relationship with the world around them: “My love / for nature is like my love for most things: / fickle & theoretical.”

Poetry is brilliant because it is for everyone. At sixteen, I knew I could be a poet because old Black ladies wrote poems; my mother read a poem for the beauty pageant talent portion when she was my age. The most dangerous thing about the way we treat poetry is how we let only old white men have it. For as many times as I’ve snickered over Poe’s dark humor, I have bellowed reading Gregory Pardlo. It is the way he gives jump rope merit in his poem “Double Dutch” that makes me believe in my own legs, in the very awe of them. It is the way he lets a Black girl transform in the lines “She makes jewelry of herself and garlands / the ground with shadows.”

I have let a Black poem’s tenderness fill me as a bottle. When I write poetry, I am giving poetry the credit it deserves. It has tickled more than white bellies, lent tears to more than white cheeks. Poetry is an everyday household item. It deserves more, because it really is the center of everyone. Poetry doesn’t leave you. I’ve learned that, because I’ve seen Sharon Olds chuckle over a poem. She is seventy-five and she hasn’t divorced poetry yet. Her odes are energetic. She has given girlhood vitality even after stepping away from it. In her “Ode of Girls’ Things,” she justified all my dismembered Barbies:

And some of the dolls had hard-rubber hands, with
dimples, and though you were not supposed to, you could
bite off the ends of the fingers when you could not stand it.

Teenagers are not exempt from poetry. In saying poetry is for everyone, I confidently include teenagers. We deserve poems. We deserve the angst of Anne Sexton. Giving a teenager a poem is the next best thing to giving them a vegetable. I have needed Olds more than a carrot, for her words do my eyesight just as good. It is Smith who has made me devoted to the craft, to how words get along and take up space. I have found so much use for poetry. Having found poetry in my high-school recklessness, I understand it as a teenage thing. Poetry is still trying to find the right deodorant. It is a maxi pad, a thrifted shoe. When teachers allow poetry to be called boring, they are denying a teenager the right to feel moved. I cannot explain high school without explaining poetry first.

Eve L. Ewing passed poetry down to me as a torch. She did it because Tara Betts had given the fire to her first. And there is a Black woman somewhere who started the flame, who extended her arm to let someone grab it. At the book release for Ewing’s Electric Arches, I began to understand how important poetry is as a practice of generational dependence. If poetry excluded teenagers, the fire would go out. Ewing would have no one to pass to. In the glow of this lineage we’ve created, Ewing let us be a part of her renaissance. I often revisit her poem “Arrival Day,” with its alien-like optimism. There’s something about the “moon people” and how they remind us of ourselves. There’s something about the way “they knew all about Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin and Mahalia / Jackson and Marvin Gaye and Missy Elliot,” how the moon people “had been listening all this time.” In sharing her poetry, Ewing gave us all a way out, but also a way deeper into ourselves.

When I share poetry, I am making an effort to make sure it reaches everybody. I am doing the work to make sure the fire doesn’t go out. Poetry demonstrates an oral and literary history. It presents feeling to us as something that is passed around. It is the poet’s duty to give poetry to those who have not found it yet. When I post a poem on Twitter, or hover my phone over a stanza for Snapchat, I am giving poetry to others. I am proof that poetry is a critical art form, something that can never be taken away.

Kara Jackson is the 2018–2019 Chicago Youth Poet Laureate). This essay was first published in Poetry magazine in 2018 and subsequently in The Poetry Review, 109:1, Spring 2019, as part of an annual exchange between the two journals. © The Poetry Review and the author.