The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

How poetry helped me navigate the turbulence of teen angst

Who among us didn't try their hand at a little poetry? Make the stab at stringing words together, aiming to say something deep, reveal a truth, capture a moment — a dark one, of course. It's almost a rite of passage. It certainly was for Sarah Prospero.
English teacher Sarah Prospero with her Writer's Craft class. (Submitted by Sarah Prospero)

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It was a terrible, terribly heartfelt poem, likely penned by a terribly heartbroken young woman whose name I will never know. But her words echoed my own feelings so exactly that I brazenly plagiarized them. It was a desperate attempt to impress my teacher in the darkest period of my adolescence, my 15th year.

I wish I could find it in my little box of flotsam and jetsam (which I've dragged around to four  houses over the course of four decades) so you could hear it in its terrible, angst-ridden entirety. Suffice to say it opens and closes with the same, tremulous line, "So I will remember satin reflections of a time before."

Sarah Prospero at 15. (Submitted by Sarah Prospero)

As a budding, pubescent poet myself, there was nothing I liked more than tremulousness in a poem. I asked my beloved Mr. Dickenson, a teacher of the old school (terribly formal, terribly British) to read it and provide some feedback. I think I actually wanted him to fall in love with me. He did not. He was kind, however, suggesting only that I might want to learn to distinguish between things tangible, and those that were not. I was stung.

At 15, The Moody Blues were my kind of poets, who also found satin a useful metaphor in which to enfold an unrequited love affair: "Nights in white satin, never reaching the end — letters I've written, never meaning to send". That song was so deep I swam in it night after night. I could have happily drowned in the big, sumptuous sound of it - metaphorically speaking, of course.

No one came close to Janis Ian, though. "I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens." I was wildly jealous of her, of course — not only was she was a published poet at 17, she could sing to boot. But oh, those fearless words — each verse cut a little deeper — no valentines, invented lovers, ravaged faces … would she never stop? Oh no — don't stop Janis, don't stop. In those days, I practically relished sorrow, and certainly relished words that named feelings in me I had yet to find expression for. I think it is so for many teenagers. Listening to At Seventeen was like holding hands with a best friend while eating Oreos dipped in milk together — it was all so terrible but all so good — but at least you had someone.

In those days, I practically relished sorrow, and certainly relished words that named feelings in me I had yet to find expression for. I think it is so for many teenagers.- Sarah Prospero

And then, in Grade 12 I fell hard for a writer named Henry David Thoreau, thanks my hippie-ecologist-bicycle-riding English teacher. Reading Walden Pond was a revelation for me. Suddenly, I was drowning not in saccharine sentiment, but in words rich in ideas about things I could honestly understand. "We need the tonic of wildness ... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable ... We can never have enough of nature."  These words  made my head want to burst.  My teacher also shared articles Thoreau had written in the Atlantic — "Wild Apples" stands out in memory — and encouraged us to talk about what made them so powerful. I was in my element. I didn't actually pass the course — I dropped out of school before the year was done. But I credit Mr. Anthony Ketchum with saving my intellectual ass, so to speak. 

Eventually, I did find my way back to school, and when I finally became an English teacher myself, particularly in my senior writing classes, I always remembered the forlorn teenager I was once — because I saw her everywhere I looked. I loved nearly every one of those kids, especially the 'bright, bad' ones, as I termed them. And they seemed to love me back. I often introduced my young charges to challenging pieces of writing about writing by authors I admired. One of my favourites was Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. I chose the piece as much for my sake as for theirs. I knew that there were young people out there just waiting to be spoken to the way he speaks to his young poet, the way he spoke to me:

"So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you." 

Indeed. Back then, I certainly didn't know that I "mustn't be frightened of the sadness." I was terrifiedI housed a deep and unexpressed grief in which I felt utterly alone. I had no sense that life would hold me, would not let me fall.

It's easy for people to belittle teen angst, tempting to dismiss it as melodrama.- Sarah Prospero

It's easy for people to belittle teen angst, tempting to dismiss it as melodrama. It can certainly be challenging to take seriously the seemingly incessant and everyday turbulence of adolescence. And sometimes it's nearly impossible to live with it. I know. But when I became a teacher, I wanted to create a safe haven for those kids in my class. I took their sorrows seriously because, more often than not, they were serious. I listened to them so they would know they were not alone. I told them my story to illustrate the truth of Rilke's words. And then I made them write their own.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay. 


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