Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 18, 2021

Revisiting the poems important to me

By ALIZA LI | March 27, 2021

foret-de-bouconne
SIMONSTERG/CC BY-SA 2.0 One of Li's favorite poems as a child was "The Road Not Taken."

The first poem I ever loved was a monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, delivered by the character Jacques and known by its opening line, “All the world’s a stage.” The poem explains the seven stages of a man’s life from birth to death, framed in a performative and lively manner meant for the theater.

At the time, sixth-grade me did not know that these 28 lines were from a play. I only found them because of an English assignment that required us to choose and recite a poem to our teacher from memory. As a bonus to the assignment, my teacher challenged us to recite our chosen poems in front of the class as part of a competition. Even at that age, I recognized that the monologue I found was meant for an audience, and so I decided to participate despite the fact that I feared public speaking.

My mother, who studied film in college, coached me through my practice as best as she could, helping me to enunciate and project my voice, to place emphasis on certain parts and to gesture with feeling. Even now, I can still remember certain lines — “mewling and puking,” “his big manly voice,” “his mistress’ eyebrow” — and the way the words rolled off my tongue and into the ears of my wide-eyed classmates. The end result earned me second place in the contest and a king-size Hershey’s chocolate bar.

I loved that poem because of how it sounded, clear and filled with energy, and how I had the ability to make it sound that way. I loved its meaning, easy to understand and insightful to read like a piece of wisdom or a fable.

The second poem I ever loved was the very famous and beloved “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I read it in middle school, although I can’t remember the exact circumstances, and was immediately captivated by the story it told of a person choosing a seldom-taken road over a popular and sunny one. It was the first poem I read that elicited an emotional response from me, feelings of loneliness and intrigue that left me wondering about the poem’s narrator and the life ahead of them.

Around this time I was also introduced to a very different type of poetry, contemporary free verse lacking rhyme or meter. My English teacher showed our class a video of a 12-year-old poetry prodigy named Kioni “Popcorn” Marshall reciting her piece “Love.” I was skeptical of the work. I expressed the thought that almost everyone thinks when they first hear or read free verse: “I don’t understand this. How is this poetry? It doesn’t even rhyme!”

I had yet to gain any real love for poetry outside of those few instances listed above. I never wrote a single poem that wasn’t required for a class assignment. I carefully distanced myself from the act because quite frankly, I didn’t think poetry was fun. I didn’t understand free verse, I was starting to find rhymes stale and I was much more attracted to fiction. I wrote stories and read novels and kept poetry out of my mind.

In my later years of high school, my love for poetry finally grew as I began to read from literary journals and online publications. All of the pieces in these magazines were contemporary free verse, and all of them challenged my idea of what poetry was supposed to be.

At first I read the poems to mimic them so I could produce my own for publication. Over time I began to recognize the beauty of this kind of free-flowing writing, the unique cadence and rhythm of these works, the vivid imagery, the way the poets broke rules and created their own way of storytelling. These poems were not classics or famed works but instead pieces from everyday writers. Many were students, young writers like myself seeking recognition in the world.

A poem I loved at this time was “How Judas Died” by Gabrielle Bates, published in The Adroit Journal. This piece is much more abstract than the ones listed above. It’s difficult to understand at first and requires several careful re-reads. There is something to appreciate in the poem’s craft, in its sound when read aloud and choices made in its writing. What does it mean to “put what was once liquid metal in my mouth” or “to unbreak a neck with a rope”?

Poetry is about asking questions and sometimes getting answers. More often than not, it involves reciprocation. You receive inspiration, insight, emotion, memory and so on, and you give in return. You give the poem a piece of yourself by making it dear to you. You memorize and recite it in front of a crowd. You keep it bookmarked on your laptop. You write a poem of your own. You make it something that speaks to you.

This is what it means to love a poem.

Aliza Li is a freshman from Houston, Texas studying Writing Seminars and Cognitive Science. Her column is an homage to all of the passions and obsessions that contribute to the person she is today.

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