Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
March 5, 2021

The ups and downs in my journey with poetry

By ABIGAIL TUSCHMAN | February 20, 2021

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SLOWKING4/CC BY-SA 3.0

Linda Pastan’s poem “Why Are Your Poems So Dark?” strongly resonated with Tuschman as a child.

Content warning: The following article includes topics some readers may find triggering, including depression and suicide. 

My love for poetry started in sixth grade. I think, before then, I believed I was too good for it. I thought poetry was the cheesy, sappy stuff of valentines and love letters. But that was the only kind I had been exposed to — the kind with red roses, blue violets and plenty of predictability. 

My sixth grade English teacher, Mr. Lewis, taught me differently. 

For one assignment, we had to watch poetry readings online. Maybe we had to write a reflection afterward. I don’t remember the specifics. But I do know that one quickly became my favorite: “Why Are Your Poems So Dark?” by Linda Pastan. It’s a short poem — only 16 lines, 64 words. Yet, it was the kind of poem I needed to read — or rather, hear — at the time. 

I was 11 years old, and I was suffering from clinical depression. I didn’t have a name for it. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it. Teachers don’t look at children who raise their hands and get good grades and think they can be suicidal. It wouldn’t be until a few months later that I received a diagnosis and a prescription for Lexapro. Some classmates would ask me why I was being such a “Debbie Downer” and I wouldn’t have an answer for them. It was a bad year. 

And then this poem fell into my lap — a poem about darkness that doesn’t need to be explained away. Here was this old Jewish woman with a New York accent, reminiscent of the “bubbes” at my congregation in Boca Raton, telling me that the darkness I was so ashamed of was okay. I didn’t think I was too good for poetry anymore.

In high school, things changed again. I dreaded the annual poetry unit. We were no longer expected to just enjoy poems but to analyze them ad nauseam. We would turn sonnets and ballads into unrecognizable things through tedious dissection, watching them become limp and lifeless under our literary scalpels. I would think to myself: “Does every comma have to serve some greater purpose? Are we going to discuss the symbolism of this tree for the entire class? Can we please move on?” 

I didn’t understand the obsession with interpretations of the minutiae. The way I saw it, proposing 20 different meanings of a single simile was fruitless. Most of the poets we were reading were dead. There would never be any answers, so why did we keep looking for them?

Now that I’m taking classes in the Writing Seminars at Hopkins, I’m beginning to realize that, in the case of poetry, dissection doesn’t have to be desecration. It’s a homage to the effort poets put into their work — creating draft after draft until every letter serves a purpose. Plus, it becomes much easier to appreciate the details in poems when you are tasked with writing your own.

So far in Introduction to Fiction & Poetry II, we’ve had to turn in a different poem every Friday. It’s meant to match the theme of the week. They’re intimidating topics — childhood, death, perception, art — with intimidating assigned readings to match. I love some of the poems we’ve read, like “Negative” by Kevin Young and “The Mare of Money” by Roger Reeves. They remind me of the kind of writer I want to be.

But trying to craft my own poem can be a painful process. There is the endless search for that perfect, elusive word that will — hopefully — make the entire piece click. There is the frustration that comes from watching a blinking cursor on a blank page. But, more than anything, there is this need to write something worth reading. And I often find that means digging up what was once shoved down — ugly things like anger, fear and shame. I have to cut myself open and sift through the pulp until I find seeds I can make sense of. Then I have to choose line breaks, punctuation and sonic links with care. Being vulnerable, neatly and intentionally, is exhausting.

I don’t know what the future holds for poetry and me. Sometimes I like telling stories through stanzas, and other times I’m desperate to swear my loyalty to prose. But it was there for me when I needed it most, so I will continue to hold onto hope.

Abigail Tuschman is a freshman from South Florida majoring in Writing Seminars. Her column documents the ups and downs of her unusual first year of college.

If you or someone you know is suffering, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, 24/7 and confidential support through a hotline at (800) 273-8255.

Counselors at the Crisis Text Line can be reached anytime by texting HOME to 741741.

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