I tell two different stories about how I started to write poetry. In both it was 1966 when I was a high school sophomore in Queens, New York. In version one, the New York City Transit Authority went out on strike for a few weeks. Ordinarily, I would take two buses to school, but during the strike my friends and I had to hitchhike. The good part was that we would not get detention for being late, so we took our time, stopping at a diner to linger over coffee and English muffins. The union head was a loudmouth named Mike Quill. The Mayor was a tormented liberal named John Lindsay. An old folk song was rolling around in my head, a lovers’ squabble called “The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie” which I rewrote as “The Ballad of Mickie and Johnnie,” a parody about the two guys responsible for the strike.
I read it to my friends while thumbing a ride on Crossbay Boulevard. When they laughed I liked the attention so I wrote another, this one set to “The Streets of Laredo.” My version, “The Streets of New York,” was about a Viet Nam war protestor getting his head bashed open by a cop. My friends liked that one too, so I wrote another. And another. Eventually, I ran out of folk songs, so I wrote something not set to music. I didn’t know what to call it until I realized it was a poem. I was shocked. I wrote a poem. I knew I couldn’t share that with my friends.
In the second story I discovered that girls like boys who are sensitive. What better way to show a girl you are sensitive than to write her a poem? I composed what I called “fill-in-the-blank love poems,” retyping them with the name and details of my latest crush. “Oh Liz with your blond hair…” became “Oh Jackie with your brown hair…” which became “Oh Renee with your red hair….” Liz and Jackie and Renee would say, “Oh, Peter, you’re so sensitive,” as I stood there waiting for them to jump on me, which they never did. Each week I fell in love with a new Liz, Jackie or Renee, and I wrote new love poems to keep up with them.
Both stories converge about two years and 200 poems later when I did something radical. I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” It hadn’t occurred to me to read a poem before. It was like I was trying to paint a rainbow without ever having seen a rainbow. But once I started to read poems I realized that everything I had written was crap. The more I read, the more I understood that poetry wasn’t just about blathering my feelings. It was about crafting words to, let’s say, “paint a rainbow” so that another person would be able to see something very much like my rainbow. I learned that the first draft is never the best draft and that real creativity comes when revising a poem. Most importantly, I learned that expressing myself was not nearly as interesting, to me or a reader, as revealing and discovering, that if I didn’t surprise myself, I would not surprise anyone else.
It doesn’t matter which of the two stories is true. Maybe they both are, or maybe I made them both up. What matters is that once I started to read poetry, to really study it, writing poems became more important and more meaningful than trying to impress my friends or get girls to like me.
Peter Murphy, founder and director of Murphy Writing Seminars. He is the author two books of poems, Stubborn Child (2005), a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize, and Thorough & Efficient (2008), and his unique poetry writing assignments have been collected in Challenges for the Delusional (2012), all from Jane Street Press.His poems and essays have appeared in The American Book Review, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Literary Review, The Shakespeare Quarterly, Witnessand hundreds of other journals. He is a consultant to organizations including Arts Horizons, the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and has been an educational advisor to Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers and other PBS poetry programs.
Peter Murphy will be the Opening Poet on Wednesday, November 20 at Dante Hall Theater in Atlantic City, NJ. The featured poet will be Lili Mendoza, a visiting international poet from Panama.