Ten Poems to Read When You Get Stuffed in a Locker
To those who have toured the inside of a gym locker, or eaten lunch in a locked bathroom stall. To those who can’t make the intramural team, or make small talk without flop sweat. Whether your days as a maladjusted sad-sack are blessedly over, or you’re still stumbling through them, take heart: these poems might cheer you up, or at least keep you company.
1. “I Am!” by John Clare
John Clare was a malnourished, dirt-poor alcoholic, confined for decades to an insane asylum when they were still called insane asylums. Under this kind of duress, it’s extraordinary that he produced a poem of such vigor and clarity. It’s a veritable loser’s manifesto: “I am the self-consumer of my woes.” Or this: “And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed // Into the nothingness of scorn and noise.” And what about the heartbreak of “Even the dearest that I loved the best / Are strange—nay, stranger than the rest.”
2. “To Myself” by Franz Wright
Wright’s long acquaintance with addiction and despair is humbling. His poems often give voice to a spiritual abjection you’d presume would thwart the resources of language. His bared soul is a mess, but it’s alert and funny enough to follow self-pity to its absurd limits. In this poem, Wright escorts himself on a late-night bus trip. His self-consciousness is so acute, it claims the landscape (“I am the rain / and the others all / around you, / and the loneliness you love, / and the universe that loves you specifically, maybe”), then gently turns back to attend to its master (“and when you begin // to cough I won’t cover my face, / and if you vomit this time I will hold you: / everything’s going to be fine”). “I am going to buy you a sandwich,” it finally promises. Every time I read this last line, I snort and question its good taste. Then my eyes well up.
3. “[Speciously individual]” by Alan Dugan
No alms for the alienated, no succor for the suckers. Don’t read Alan Dugan if you want to feel better about yourself. Think you’re so special? Maybe you’re actually just a gob of spit floating in the spit-bowl (“I dream of free bravery / but am a social being”). Read through this nihilistic assault to reach the gratifying pun: “I should do something / to get out of here / but float around in the culture / wondering what it will grow.”
4. “Larkinesque” by Michael Ryan
Ryan, whose poems frequently revisit the tensions and cruelties of youth, here invokes the spirit of that crown prince of misanthropic, socially awkward poet-librarians, Philip Larkin. As his muse might have, Ryan reaches toward a cold-comforting thought: beautiful people are no better off for their beauty. “It’s only common sense that happiness / depends on some bearable deprivation / or defect,” the poet reasons through a sigh. How is this “common sense?” Because so many of us rely on it, I guess.
5. “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” by W.B. Yeats
“Be secret and take defeat,” Yeats advises. A far cry from the usual admonishments to Buck up, cowboy!, Yeats’s poem does not offer consolation after failure, but demands that the friend examine the worth of a suspect success (“For how can you compete, / Being honor bred, with one / Who were it proved he lies / Were neither shamed in his own / Nor in his neighbors’ eyes”). In other words, his friend’s peers aren’t fit to judge success or failure—so where’s the value in their appraisal?
6. “In Praise of Pain” by Heather McHugh
A tricky piece. The poem is studded with flaws, little signs of violence: breaks, cracks, chips, nicks, nips, pocks. They alter how the light strikes a surface, changing beauty or introducing it where there was none. Fluidly iambic lines (“A brilliance takes up residence in flaws”) punctuate passages of nervy, jerky syntax. The poem arrives at a surprising conclusion: “And break the bottle of the eye to see / what lights are spun of accident and glass.” The ultimate violence in the struggle to perceive beauty is to “break” the agent of perception (the eye) itself. When we “assault and drive and burn the devil” from something simply “perfect,” we’re rewarded with a heightened sense of the sublime. Imperfection: it’s radical!
7. From “Doctor Drink, #1” by J.V. Cunningham
Here’s a poem with the bootstraps cure for dejection: a dubious affirmation of self-love. Cunningham’s speaker figures that any love outside the self can escape our control before escaping us altogether: what heart but the one you own will steadfastly follow your fickleness? Terse, smart, and sour, this is nevertheless one of Cunningham’s more poignant pieces. At first glance he comes off as a crusty old bird, but there’s a wealth of nimble wit in his brief poems. They’ll set up shop in your brain and provide hours of amusement on dateless Saturday nights.
8. “Dream Song 14” by John Berryman
Every day as a college freshman, I had to cross the pedestrian bridge from which Berryman jumped to his death. Being a maudlin, deservedly friendless type, I turned this into a meditative ritual before I’d even bothered to read his work. After months of mispronouncing “ennui,” I found its flawless definition here in this poem, done up in the tetchy, long-winded rhetoric of an uneasy mind. It flings out and then gently swats down a swell of Romantic feeling (“After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn”). It confesses what all earnest, bookish sorts secretly think (“Peoples bore me, / literature bores me, especially great literature”). And it re-creates that nauseating reduction of space, matter, and time that attends a sudden attack of boredom (“and somehow a dog / has taken itself & its tail considerably away / into mountains or sea or sky, leaving / behind: me, wag.”). Bonus: it mocks those productive citizens who are fond of saying that only boring people get bored.
9. “I Feel Horrible. She Doesn’t” by Richard Brautigan
Sometimes you’re the turd, sometimes you’re the lid. Sometimes you’re the sewing machine that sews the turd to the lid. If none of this makes sense to you, congratulations: you’re not much of a loser.
10. “Love (III)” by George Herbert
From the ridiculous to the sublime, here’s an antidote to disappointment and feelings of deficiency, courtesy of George Herbert, a 17th-century parish priest and an astonishing poet. Love itself, in the form of a sensitive host, invites the speaker to sit at his table and partake. But the speaker’s too ashamed of his unworthiness to even look at Love. “Who made the eyes but I?” replies gracious, supernatural Love. The speaker relents and feasts.
Ten Poems to Read When You Get Stuffed in a Locker