`If You Was Me'

WHEN I read the title of this poem to the school assembly I asked what seemed odd about it. Even some of the younger students waved hands in the air, only too happy to inform their visiting poet that he'd committed a grammatical blunder even before the poem is under way. So if a poet-in-residence is supposed to be a model for his students, what's going on with this poem? After a few guesses, some sharp fifth grader chanced this assessment: ``Maybe you're not the one speaking in the poem! Maybe it's some kid speaking and that's the way he talks.'' And a great ripple of satisfaction crossed the auditorium as they felt their own minds skip into a higher gear to join the poet's in the spiraling flight pattern of poetry.

In fact, ``If You Was Me'' is a persona poem, one in which the poet creates a character's voice to deliver the poem. It is also a way to use the imagination to climb inside someone else's life, to try on for size a point of view quite different than our own. Poets have portrayed the voices of babbling newborns, tearful old men, and almost everyone in between. Even swans, stones, old shoes, and mountains are able to speak their minds under the tutelage of the poet's pen.

In this case, I've invented a fifth grader as the speaker of my poem, and he gives us a curious glimpse of recess at his elementary school. My students always enjoy this poem and often have a great deal to share after hearing it. Their response points to two important aspects of poetry. The first one is perhaps the sweetest reward of the written word: It momentarily dissolves our aloneness. So often we live under this impression: ``No one can understand what I'm going through! No one else could possibly feel this way.''

In the time it takes to digest a dozen lines of poetry, you can peek inside someone else's life, and often discover that there are more similarities than you'd imagined. The very words and images and rhythms of our language have lived inside a thousand, thousand mouths before our own. And for that moment, deep within your self, you understand what it means to be a part of the human community. It is a powerful feeling, I promise you, enough to help you through even the most difficult of days.

The second aspect of poetry, especially the poetry that is written today, is the way it focuses on the simplest, most everyday of experiences and finds beauty or surprise or terror or meaning waiting there. Though some writers favor moments of unusual adventure or wild fantasy, most poets today tend to explore the streets of their cities, the foothills above their towns, for their deepest inspirations. When you are quiet, curious, and thoroughly open to the little moments of your day, there's no telling what you will discover there.

I've read ``If You Was Me'' to many assemblies now, and after each one students come up to ask me, in confidential voices, ``What did you really do?'' I am deeply flattered. First, because they believe in my fifth grader's voice enough to care about what happens to him. And second, because they were able to walk around inside my poem long enough to make it their own. I ask them what they would have done in my place. And no matter what they tell me, in truth, that is the perfect answer.

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