2015-2016 IATE Poetry Contest

Here's a list of recipients of Special Merit awards, their schools, and their nominating teachers. Winning poems can be viewed by clicking on the students' names:

  • Laura McAllister, "A Girl's Weak Spot"/ Grade 12 / Teacher: Frank Alletto / Lyons Township High School
  • Anna Leguti, "we grew accustomed to uncertainty" / Grade 9 / Teacher: Karen LeMaistre / Libertyville High School
  • Anna Leguti, "edges" / Grade 9 / Teacher: Karen LeMaistre / Libertyville High School
  • Samantha Merrick, "Fleeting Humans" / Grade 11 / Teacher: Martha Keller / Adlai E. Stevenson High School
  • Samantha Merrick, "Detox" / Grade 11 / Teacher: Martha Keller / Adlai E. Stevenson High School

Kevin Stein / 2016 IATE Poems of Special Merit

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 To Celebrate or to Lament: Poetry’s Eenie Meenie Miney (Mo)de

      Poetry – like the human body – loves the binary. All poetry falls on one side or the other of this blunt-knife divide: Poems are written either to celebrate or to lament.

     That this notion is fundamental in no way makes it less profound. Humans write poems mostly in the throes of despair or the ecstatic. Still, even one’s mundane Wednesday morning poem begun in rote has mysterious means of finding its way to unexpected locales of hurt or pleasure, sometimes both at once.

     Poetry – like nature – loves symmetry. It offers a way to frame chaos into some semblance of order, no matter how partial and inconsolably momentary that balance must be. For each thing there is its other, opposites made twins by necessity of the contrary. We know joy because we’ve felt grief. We recognize the toothache of sadness because we’ve tasted sugary bliss.

     We’ve two eyes, ears, arms, and legs but only one mouth. That one locale is the shared source of our airborne Cardinal of joy and the earthworm of gloom. From it spouts fire or flower, a blossoming that burns or enthralls – an act itself enthralling because we’re never sure which will find voice in us. One thing, after all, spills into another before we recognize the revelation as revelation, the said thing serving as host of awareness arriving after the fact and without a suitable bottle of dinner-party wine.

     In her poem “Tenderness and Rot,” Kay Ryan puts the matter in unalloyed terms refusing any tinge of the romantic:

Tenderness and rot   

share a border.   

And rot is an   

aggressive neighbor   

whose iridescence   

keeps creeping over.[i]  

Ryan’s notion of affection forever threatened by creeping rot sifts through all of this year’s splendid winning poems, a group uncannily focused on the nature of familial and romantic love. Congratulations to all of our winners.

     Ms. Ryan’s lament for sweetness gone sour finds particular poignancy in the pieces I have selected as 2016 Poems of Special Merit. In the first of these, “Detox,” high school junior Samantha Merrick posits this transformation as congenial buzz become destructive addiction. From the initial line, Merrick’s speaker sets out to detail the unhealthy aspects of a former relationship, sweetly slamming her ex via direct address: “You were a drug.” From there, Merrick employs an inventive extended conceit playing off the parallels between infatuation and addiction. There’s the allure of a young woman’s “escape” by means of exotic “risk,” the partner’s “touch” itself a “gateway drug” to her heart, and the gradual but certain dependency she felt for “each and every kiss.”

     Over time this addled love, like most drugs, required the speaker to ingest more and more of it simply to make herself “numb.” Eventually, even that failed to deliver the “high” for which she hankered. Note the speaker’s apt use of past tense to encapsulate fleeting elevation and its grounded aftermath:

Nothing could intoxicate me the way you did.

You fixed me in ways that nothing else could.

I became addicted to your touch, scent, hugs,

and how your eyes light up when you talk about something you love.

I always longed for your eyes to light up when you spoke about me.

 

You were a drug, and now I’m wishing there was rehab for a broken heart.

 

     Here “rehab” implies the speaker’s need to kick the habit and become herself again. In the poem “edges,” ninth-grader Anna Legutki extends that view by noting the ways that giving oneself to another can result in loss of identity. Her speaker offers a keenly detailed past-tense portrait of herself as edgily individualistic:

I was straight edges

dark hues against icy skin

leather jacket and red lipstick

spiked hair and sharp eyes

     To be sure, all that spikey sharpness had its appeal. But Legutki’s speaker discovered to her dismay that her partner had a different idea of who she was and what she might become. Like her, we’ve all encountered the sweetheart who would adore us even more if we just changed these few things, ahem – a list that grows ever longer and more impossible to fulfill. Legutki’s speaker traces the distance between her personal geography and what her partner preferred to alter about her:

you were looking for curved edges . . .

looking for femininity

in its purest form

 

but when you found only

rough edges and tough bone

you took your chisel and

chipped away at the parts you didn’t like

     The sculptural metaphor brings to mind Pygmalion’s falling in love with one of his statues, an ivory figure that by Aphrodite’s godly intercession transfigures to flesh and blood woman. Here, though, the partner’s refashioning proves to be both clumsy and injurious, inverting the Pygmalion myth’s dollop of hope into a darker hammer of unmaking: “you crushed every part of me.”

     At this venture, the poem might easily swoon into despair and self-pity, but Legutki avoids that tumble. After all, the speaker recounts her tale in past tense. Since then, she has enacted her own form of restorative rehab, as she lets readers know via the assertive present tense declaration that follows: “I am straight edges / dark hues against icy skin” [my emphasis].

     Elsewhere, Legutki’s second Poem of Special Merit “we grew accustomed to uncertainty” echoes these same concerns given physicality bordering on abuse. The speaker admits to writing “all these poems because / they connect” her both to the formerly tender partner and to herself as she used to be. Note the dramatic shift in tone and practice between the speaker’s fond memory of their bond

You brought me roses so often

I grew accustomed to the smell of

freshly cut blossoms in my room

 

and the suffocating relationship it devolved into

 

I grew accustomed to Your hand

around my throat and how I had to

gasp struggle plead scream gasp gasp gasp

     All relationships rooted in trust risk human vulnerability both emotional and physical. Often we learn too late what pain may come from the handshake between trust and exposure, as senior Laura McAllister’s “A Girl’s Weak Spot” suggests in visceral terms. Set on a playground – slyly blending realms of innocence and experience – the poem opens with a literal low blow:

Ryan, his uncertain head

shiny with fear, guided my foot—

right between the legs, he muttered,

moments before he crumbled

onto the slippery woodchips

     The poem’s playfulness belies its crotch-clutching message about the hook-up of love and pain. When the young man asks the female speaker for reciprocity in the form of her revealing a “girl’s weak spot,” the speaker plays as coy as she is demure. She promises to give him access to that knowledge (and locale) on some forever receding “tomorrow.”

     Though the speaker doubts she’s “ever found” that weak spot, she and her readers likely know it resides “right between the legs.” That site represents the pyretic domain of beauty and ruin adults inhabit. And its risks loom there, despite the speaker’s wish to negotiate the “balance bars” linking youth and adulthood as well as the young man’s yearning to “summit” that high moment like a playground slide climbed and ridden.

     All these poems examine the viral interplay of “tenderness and rot” as Kay Ryan describes it. With notable sophistication, they offer readers episodic instances of love and love-gone-fetid. As Dean Young reminds us, “Poetry is an art of beginning and endings. You want middles, read novels. You want happy endings, read cookbooks. Not closure, word filched from self-help fuzzing the argument.”[ii] Samantha Merrick, another double winner of Poems of Special Merit recognition, renders the matter as metaphor and summative statement in her “Fleeting Humans.” She gives us loveliness made all the more haunting by its evanescence:

You were peach and lilac flowers planted in a garden that bloom on the first warm day of the year.

You were tire swings

lemonade stands

recess

Sunday afternoons

and everything else beautiful yet temporary.

     The ephemeral quality of beauty beset by rot is the tiger we catch by the toe. By doing so, though, we become the ones who holler our eenie meenie poems either to celebrate or to lament the human condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Kay Ryan, The Niagara River (New York: Grove Press, 2005): 24.

[ii] Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010): 87.