My wife and I recently bought a new home and moved. In the midst of packing and unpacking hundreds of boxes I happened upon an old cardboard box that I have been carrying around with me since my mother sold the house in which I was raised after my father died in 1969. Among the many items stashed away in that delightful and embarrassing box was a folder full of poetry from my teenage years including my freshman year in college. Well, I was an idiot. I was a stupid idiot. It is amazing that I am still alive. Someone should have shot me or beaten me to death for writing these self indulgent and pathetic thoughts down on paper. After I encountered this nonsense I didn't leave my new house for two days. I was humiliated. I was certain someone else was aware that I had just reread all of this crap and they were watching my every move to ensure that I didn't try to harm myself. It is further humiliating to me that I saved it. Why, in the name of all that doesn't rhyme, did I save it?
The themes of these poems were death, hopelessness, war, man's inhumanity to man, my parents, God (dog spelled backwards) and, you know, love. All of these poems sucked and as I was reading them I was trying hard to forget how, immediately after writing one, I would run to a friend or call someone and share my ponderous, new, world-cleansing tome with them and how they would always tell me how incredible they were and that I should write more. Those were the people who should have shot me or beaten me to death and here they were encouraging me to create more of this crap. Well, they were idiots, too. So, my dad died when I was 16 and my mom was a helpless mess and I was planning to be a minister and this was all during the Vietnam War and my high school sweetheart went off to college and found some rich fraternity guy and these were the only themes that really were resonating with me at the time, I guess.
I think it is reasonable that a 14 or 15 year old kid be forgiven for writing an awkward love sonnet or a beatnik-like haiku about the government. But, a 20 year old should be bound and buggered for conceiving, writing and preserving the thoughts that I was encountering on these pages. They were so ignorant and arrogant that, as I was reading, I could feel myself cringe and wince from the emotional pain I was experiencing. And yet, I was mesmerized. It was much like the feeling I had when I was clicking through the television channels late one night and came across a woman hot-gluing various sized buttons onto an empty can of Campbell's Tomato Soup that she had just finished covering with a piece of leftover, plaid, cabinet shelf paper to make a replacement Yahtzee shaker. I couldn't stop watching that woman. I just couldn't believe that somebody would do this. It was entirely too bizarre. So it was with these poems. I couldn't believe that someone would do this. I imagined all of those poor, innocent people who were exposed to this drivel still talking about what an asshole I was with that weird, bullshit poetry that I used to write and how I was such a pain in the ass to have to encounter because I always made people look at something new I had created and never really gave a shit about anybody else's life. What a prick. What a dick. What a slick, dick prick.
In the weeks since I opened the box and uncovered this horrible bit of my history I have had to come face to face with the fact that I am not nearly as cool as I believed myself to be. At least there was a time I was not so cool; that time when I thought those thoughts and wrote those poems. And I had this startling thought about those startling thoughts: I had no idea just how terribly out of touch and hideous these self-indulgent pieces of tripe were. I perceived myself to be T. S. Elliott and Carl Sandburg; e. e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. No; better than they. I was hipper, younger and all-knowing. I was brilliant, coy and majestic. I was tragic, brave and sensitive. I was an idiot. I was stupid and I was an idiot. But, this is what fills me with dread: I still am.
Why, for instance, have I not taken that folder full of bad poetry and shredded it to pieces or burned it to black dust? Well, I suppose that somewhere in the unspoken crevices of this immature mind I remain secretly convinced that someone will encounter these unfortunate phrases long after I'm gone and proclaim me to have been the personification of all things sensitive and profound. And people will honor me and research me and write essays about me and they will turn my various homes into museums and they will give scholarships in my name and they will read my works at colleges and universities and publish volume after volume of my undiscovered genius. They will analyze me, build a statue of me in the center of my hometown, name the new English department at my old high school after me and finally, after all this time, they will disgrace the name of John Childress, the son-of-a-bitch who failed me in the poetry component of the mandatory freshman humanities class for writing, "...such insipid tripe." Yes, he will suffer; not quite as much as he did when he read my poetry but, he will suffer. He will suffer because he told the truth. Poetic justice.