The Terrible Poem Breakdown series analyzes poems that are just not making it. We do this with the best intentions but pull no punches. Previous entries in our series can be found at the bottom of the post.
As always, the only rules are that the poems cannot be intentionally bad and the poet must be completely willing to submit to the analysis. I’m not qualified to judge poems for their formal qualities or even their poetic merit. I offer only the opinion of a willing reader and honest opinion provider.
Off we go!
On my way home from a student council trip
I rode shotgun while our guidance counselor drove.
Others in the backseat were listening to Walkmen.
He gave me some advice about getting out of town.
He’d seen others hold themselves back, their own worst enemy.
I asked him about some of the graduating seniors
The ones who seemed to be on their way.
I mentioned my neighbor.
A kid who lived across the street, his dad retired military.
I’d been impressed by his standardized test score
And his acceptance into the naval academy.
The driver winced. Cole? he asked. Is that what he’s telling people?
And I knew what I had known for years
But had chosen not to see.
My friend was lying. He’d always been a liar.
Something in him needed to boast, to brag,
To make himself into something he wasn’t.
He wound up working with his mom at the K-Mart in Janesville.
His mom, who didn’t regionally manage the place,
But sold products, an ordinary cashier.
Cole did it too. I saw him there once.
Maybe that was his plan all along:
Lie about his destination, his future.
Burn his bridges so he couldn’t stay.
Earn some pocket money on the night shift
Enough to buy a car and drive to California,
Someplace to start over
Somewhere to reinvent himself.
It’s not a bad plan. I like to think it’s true
The alternative is too horrible.
And when he saw me at K-Mart
Waiting in his line, smiling,
His mother one aisle over looking on, concerned
I who had known him and his family better than anyone in town
And he stared at his cash drawer and refused to acknowledge me
Even after I stupidly said his name three times, with greater urgency and confusion
Sure he hadn’t heard
As he took my money for the notebooks I was buying for college
I hope he was thinking about California
And that the brightness of his future life
Outshone what I represented at that moment, for all my smiling goodwill:
The life he hated and needed to escape.
I’ve been to Janesville! I might even know that K-Mart they’re referring to! I’m starting to think people are seriously manipulating this process. But once again I don’t care! This one has a sort of hangdog element to it that appeals to me. It is very, very difficult to endure.
People, I just watched the film Gravity. A truly fantastic film. And during the first twenty minutes or so, I was overwhelmed with anxiety about what I was about to endure. The only thing that kept me going? This thought:
I know this has a Hollywood ending.
I knew that somehow, some way, there would be a positive experience. Something cathartic would come out of this. And it did!
I’ve been guilty of this in my own writing. Not every story has a Hollywood ending. Even blog posts do not have to be uplifting all the time. But sometimes it’s okay to let a little sunlight in! A little hope! A little encouragement!
So when a poem starts out with a guy – a boy, a high school boy – too embarrassed to confess that he’s not as accomplished as he’s been pretending to be, I’d like to think there’s some kind of uplifting twist!
And that’s what the poet is looking for too! I like that the poet is looking for that! I can identify with the poet’s hope!
We know what probably happened to this guy. California! A dream. And dreams don’t come true at the Janesville K-Mart. It is the graveyard of dreams. Dead dreams are a daily blue light special, at the Janesville K-Mart.
Most of the time, anyway. But then…we can always hope.
As always my undying gratitude for the poet for being willing to submit to this scrutiny. Keep hope alive, poets!
Previous Broken-Down Terrible Poems:
- “Two Geniuses”
- “Raise or Quit”
- “good poem”
- “The Druid’s Lament”
- “Summer Song”
- “The Gentle German”
- “There in the Valley of Elah”
- “Ode to a 20-Year-Old ‘Poet'”
- “The Dancer”
- “May Day”