NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.
It’s a slow news day so here’s another old poem from my archives, with all-new footnotes and commentary. Enjoy please enjoy.
Sonnet 17 - October 1, 1990
I see you in the classroom every day,
But hide my bashful face behind a book; 2
At quite a cautious distance I must stay,
To satisfy myself with frequent looks.
I know it’s creepy, watching from afar
Instead of walking up and saying hi. 6
Alas, my social skills aren’t up to par;
I just can’t be that smooth and social guy.
A little voice says, “What is there to lose?
If you don’t try, you’re never gonna learn.” 10
But I know better than to try to schmooze:
A louder voice says, “You will crash and burn.”
Although approaching you makes perfect sense,
I simply do not have the confidence. 14
Footnotes & commentary
Title - 17
I named this “17” in a pompous attempt to seem Shakespearean. Giving a poem a number instead of a title was standard in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, just as using fancy words like “oeuvre” was standard among English majors in my day. This title was also intended as a pun because the speaker is 17 years old. (Did I reckon that would be obvious? I can’t remember.)
I originally wrote this for my high school creative writing class, and at that time it was indeed the 17th sonnet I’d written. But back then I named it “My Serious Love Sonnet,” to differentiate it from this one. Four years later, I extensively revised the poem for a college Shakespeare class. The professor had given us a choice: either take the midterm exam, or write a sonnet. That would have been a no-brainer even if I hadn’t already had a sonnet I could recycle. But I had to make tons of revisions because the original was embarrassingly bad.
Line 1 – in the classroom
The original high school version started, “I see you walking home ‘most every day/ And always want to help you with your books.” This was total garbage, of course. The idea of a teenage boy carrying a girl’s books for her was antiquated and schmaltzy even then. In retrospect, “classroom” doesn’t work that well either, because in a relatively small high school class no student should be forgiven for looking over at a girl 24x7 without ever talking to her. The notion would play better with a college-sized lecture hall … and yet that would make the speaker even more stunted, for surely a college kid should have put such abject shyness behind him. (I wasn’t exactly Big Man on Campus, but I was at least capable of striking up a conversation.)
Line 3 – quite
Using a word like “quite” here, just to pad out the line in service of the iambic pentameter, was a lame trick I leaned on excessively in my benighted youth. The original line was, “But always at a distance I will stay,” which avoids this pitfall but also sounds a bit off; in normal speech we usually put the verb first and then the prepositional phrase (i.e., “I will always stay at a distance”). So even the original line warped the language to force-fit the meter.
Line 4 – satisfy myself with frequent looks
The word “satisfy” here is totally wrong. The whole point is that the speaker isn’t satisfied by just looking. If he were, his anguish—which is the theme of the poem—wouldn’t exist and there would be no need for a poem at all (other than as a school assignment). Something like “stoke my appetite with frequent looks” would better capture the reality of a teenage boy who is all desire, and whose cravings are never gratified.
The professor circled “book” and “looks” in red and noted the imperfect rhyme. Sure, I could have put “books” instead, but that would suggest a stack of books that I’m peering out from behind, rather than a single open book that I’m peering over. I thought rhyming “book” with “looks” would be a totally permissible instance of poetic license so I was a bit annoyed at the red ink. That said, I got an A on the sonnet, so I couldn’t really complain.
Line 5 – creepy
I was, and am, just a bit uncomfortable with “creepy” here because it’s a pretty serious accusation, and the reader is naturally inclined to conflate the speaker with the poet. For that reason, I didn’t want to imply that these frequent looks were insufficiently discreet. For the speaker to be merely shy is kind of endearing; for him to be a stalker—not so much. And yet, “creepy” is also kind of perfect, because doesn’t every shy teenager with a crush feel like a bit of a creep? Needless to say this was years before Radiohead wrote “Creep,” but the sentiment is rather similar: “You’re so fucking special/ But I’m a creep/ I’m a weirdo/ What the hell am I doing here?”
Line 6 – walking up
Here, “walking up” seems like another throwaway phrase. I mean, what else is the guy gonna do? Yell “hi” from across the room? Obviously, “stepping up” would work better, but perhaps this expression wasn’t available to me. (Did people say “stepping up” in 1990?)
Line 7 – social skills
There’s something kind of clinical and dopey about the phrase “social skills” in the context of an angst-y poem in the voice of a tortured teen. (You think Radiohead would use the phrase “social skills,” other than ironically?)
To the extent that this poem is autobiographical, “social skills” doesn’t even cover it. My family culture growing up was socially … problematic. As a grade school kid I simultaneously believed that I was a) somehow intrinsically inferior to others and thus undeserving of their positive regard, and b) nevertheless above them, because they did stupid stuff like watching football on TV. So I was both terribly shy and slightly arrogant, which needless to say was the perfect recipe for social suicide and irrevocable pariah status.
By high school, though, I was more comfortable in my skin. I actually did have conversations with gorgeous girls, though I was far from smooth. For example, I was chatting with a total knockout named Audrey and she asked if I was going to register for the draft. I was too insecure to answer the question honestly—was I supposed to say no, so I’d seem like a rebel?—so I replied, “Yeah, I dunno … I haven’t really decided yet. How about you?” She laughed, “I don’t have to … I’m a girl!” I felt my face burning with embarrassment and that conversation was over.
Line 9 – little voice
Is it clear that the little voice is in the speaker’s head? I hope so, as that was my intent. This isn’t to say there weren’t actual voices weighing in on the matter when I grappled with my own real-life social foibles. There was this one girl I was kind of into, who I was pretty confident would go out with me, but I just wasn’t sure that I wanted her to. For one thing, we were friends, and if I’d guessed wrong about there being a romantic opportunity, that friendship was sure to end or at least become awkward. Plus, dating in general seemed like a lot of hassle. So I did nothing, and after a while she must have told a friend to tell a friend, etc. and my pal David started hinting around that I should ask her out. I played dumb, until he grew impatient and said, “Look, here’s the thing. I have it on good authority if you ask her out, she’ll say yes. It’s like a slam-dunk.” I stared at him for a few seconds before finally replying, “So?” Exasperated, he fired back, “Let us not forget that our main objective here is to get laid!” He was half-serious, but also mocking me, and himself, and dating in general I suppose. His line became an instant classic.
Line 12: crash and burn
Look, it’s easy enough for you, the reader, to sit back and say, “What is this dude’s problem? He should just go talk to her! She’s probably perfectly nice.” Well, you didn’t go to my high school, and (maybe) you weren’t a nerd. Nowadays, nerds are kind of cool, but back then, in the Boulder Valley Public Schools, nerds and geeks and dorks were all basically the same thing and we were treated like vermin. Anybody who ran the risk of being cool to us was vulnerable to secondhand nerdiness. Moreover, any female who was cool to a nerd was in danger of being called “the geek-whore.” Not a geek-whore, but the geek-whore, like there was always one of them, though the process of selecting her was never clear.
How widespread was this geek-whore risk? I couldn’t really say. It’s true that a really gorgeous girl like Audrey was too far removed from nerdiness to ever run the risk of being called the geek-whore, but any girl that a nerd thought he might have a chance with was automatically in danger. A nerd hanging out with such a girl might hear about it from his nerdy friend later: “Dude, I saw you hanging out with the geek-whore at lunch!” If anybody overheard, and bothered to figure out whom the nerd was referring to, the poor girl was in great peril. These were dark times.
Line 13: you
There’s an obvious problem here with “you,” which originally meant the girl of his dreams, but then became a reference to the speaker himself, in the voice of his conscience. And now all of a sudden it’s back to the girl, whom the reader has probably all but forgotten about.
Interesting, isn’t it, how this poem has almost nothing to do with the girl being admired? That flaw came about through the revision. The original poem talked about the girl’s silky hair and pure skin, which was worse. It read a bit like a print ad for some fancy shampoo or skin cream. These details also increased the creepy factor somehow, even though love poems have traditionally fetishized the subject to some degree. My revised version, utterly bereft of information about the desired girl, has an air of “It’s not you … it’s me.” In that regard, it’s almost the opposite of an ode. At least I had the good sense never to show it to a girl.
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