In sixth grade, Mrs. Nerbonne assigned us the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. We had to memorize and recite it aloud both to each other and as a chorus for the principal, a man who wore these Italian suits we’d only seen in movies. I remember standing there in a chorus of other children saying “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” It was being forced to promise not to commit suicide in front of the whole class. Parochial school, am I right? The next week we had to write a poem in response to Frost’s poem. The drafting process was laborious but fun. I had the most vivid dream the night before the poem was due. In the dream a female classmate read and recited her poem to me. I was blown away by how beautiful it was. It was a revelation to me, a reverie. I was probably thinking about the lines: The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, / But I have promises to keep in the dream and heard these words tuned in to my classmate’s voice channel—my thoughts through her mouth. Dreaming still, I attempted a transcription of her poem…a winter chill. The next morning, I was awoken by the nagging jealousy of my classmate and the fear that she was the better poet. That ugly jealousy hurled me forward. I tried to write down what I could remember from the dream of her poem, but I could only recall the mood it set in place. This classmate had not-the-best family situation, and I knew things I wished I did not. What if she had a closer access to the death drive Frost idealizes? I wasn’t thinking that at the time, but I was thinking something rancid. I believe I really became a poet that night I dreamt in words. I returned to class totally fried with unbrushed hair—ready to recreate the poem of my dream. I wrestled with whether my memory was a plagiarism. During lunch, I asked to read my classmate’s poem. She handed it to me: it was a poem that stole its rhyme scheme and end words from Frost. I smiled to her and sighed relief. Poetry was my own rotting apple I’d bobbed for and caught in the night.
‘Ars Poetica’ first appeared in a zine titled Girl Blood Info.
Amy Lawless is the author of two books of poems including My Dead (Octopus Books). Her third poetry collection Broadax is forthcoming from Octopus Books this summer. A chapbook A Woman Alone is just out from Sixth Finch. With Chris Cheney she is the author of the hybrid book I Cry: The Desire to Be Rejected from Pioneer Works Press’ Groundworks Series (2016). Her poems have recently or are forthcoming in jubilat, Reality Beach, The Volta, Washington Square Review, Best American Poetry 2013, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion, and the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (Brooklyn Arts Press). She received a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2011. She lives in Brooklyn.
feature image via Caleb Zahnd on Flickr.