Many people begin writing poetry during adolescence, a turbulent time of life when we’re wrestling with identity, independence, and desire. That’s a full plate for sure, and no wonder so many young people turn to poetry to try to sort out their feelings and make sense of their place in the world.
As an aside, if you are a young poet (either in age or in your writing career), I have a piece of advice: Keep everything you write. Don’t delete or discard anything. Some of it will probably embarrass you if you look back on it from a more mature perspective, but everything you write is potentially valuable. And, your prior work is also a potential goldmine for later writing projects.
Like many angsty teens, when I started writing, it was to understand my mixed-up thoughts about identity, independence, and desire. What’s interesting to me now, though, as an older person, is the different ways we look back at adolescence.
Some poets, like Claude McKay, have looked back on adolescence as a time of innocence. For Rita Dove, in “Adolescence II,” it seems like a time of magical but frightening transformation. For Adrienne Su, adolescence takes on a broader meaning.
For the following poem on adolescence, originally published in my collection Back East, I considered a memory of one pure afternoon.
That volcanic August, the asphalt steamed
behind their older cousin’s El Camino,
a car so hot no one questioned why
it sported a pick-up bed, or why it took
them to skinny-dip at the long- abandoned quarry.
On the path through the woods, they foraged for sex without
knowing it, plucking shapely fungi
and curling moss. They came to the water before
it was too late. Years before one lost
an arm to the road and another lost his life
to it, the boys jumped feet first from the cliff,
cupping hands in prayer around their genitalia.
The flower-power girls dove in before
rapes, abortions, cancers, free-fall naked
without a single consequence, their hands
the points of spades cleaving the mirror.
Treading water, they traded stories of boys
who’d broken their necks and girls who’d disappeared.
The well of rainfall, fluent in the tongue
of silk, praised their barest skin and cooled them.