Sometime during my second year at Penn State, probably during spring term but I’m not really certain, I took a poetry writing course.
“What’s that?” I hear you say. “Why did you take a poetry writing course? I thought you didn’t like poetry.”
That’s true. I’m not particularly a fan of poetry, and I have absolutely no recollection of why I took that course. I didn’t have any aspirations to write poetry, no one else that I knew was taking the course, I don’t think it had a reputation as an easy grade. So it’s a big mystery as to why I found myself in a poetry writing course.
I’m sure I had a good reason, though.
As it happens, I don’t recall very much about that course. At our first class we were greeted by a substitute teacher who told us he was a drug addict. Recovering, but once a druggie always a druggie, as the saying goes. He went on to extol the virtues of cocaine, explaining that the greatest high he had ever experienced was from cocaine. Apparently he had had a wide experience.
That out of the way, I seem to recall he was a pretty decent instructor.
It was a small class, probably there were fewer than ten of us, and each week (I think we only met weekly), we’d read aloud whatever poem we had written, and the class and the instructor would offer constructive criticism.
My first offering was met with withering disdain. Which was all right because it was just something I had dashed off in order to submit something, anything, since I didn’t think I had any aptitude for writing poetry.
Remind me again why I was taking this course?
It occurs to me now that I should have submitted that “You’ll Drown” piece, but I suspect I had already forgotten about it.
Somewhere along the line I got the, well, inspiration seems too strong a word, but I got the idea to do a riff on the song “Paper Cup”. Written by Jim Webb (in the days before he definitively became Jimmy Webb), it was included on The Magic Garden, the second album released by The 5th Dimension (one of the many featuring Hal Blaine on drums).
That album was a concept album in that the songs told the story of a romance from first meeting to its bitter ending. “Paper Cup”, the concluding song (except for a brief epilogue), told of the jilted lover’s life inside a metaphorical paper cup and his descent into nihilism.
“I’m free and it’s so easy to get / The things I always wanted / Cause I don’t really want ’em anymore.”
But the despairing lyrics were sheathed in an upbeat, bouncy tune.
So I took that idea and added the concept of the old hand game, Rock Paper Scissors, and suddenly I had a poem. When I submitted it that week, everyone seemed to like it, or at least get it. Even the instructor commented that it had a “nice pop song feel to it.” And that was before one of the other students asked where I got the idea, which I explained pretty much as I just did above.
I don’t know how many other poems I may have submitted in that course, but this is the only one that I remember. I also don’t know what my grade was, but I probably passed.
Somewhere in all the papers that I’ve saved, I’m sure I have the original manuscript, but the poem is short enough that I can recall it, so here it is.
Paper Scissors Rock
They poured him and poured him
Till he flowed into a paper cup,
Never knowing which way his luck would spin.
And so he lived paperly,
And loved paperly,
But loathed with a pair of silver scissors.
And they—they looked on from atop their Plymouths and Gibralters.