Close-Reading My High School Poetry
By Julia Bifulco
When I was fourteen, I decided that I wanted to be a poet. And so I became one. I carried around my little Hilroy copybooks-turned-journals, of which I eventually had three, and refused to put them in my near-empty school bag. Instead, I proudly held them in my arms as I paraded around the hallways of my high school, trying my best to play the part of the oh-so-mysterious writer. I tuned out of the classes that I deemed not worthy of my time—sincerest apologies to all my science teachers—and furiously scribbled in page after page. I first wrote exclusively in black ink, and when I ran out of space in my first notebook and needed to transfer to a new one, I settled for blue ink (because there were more blue pens to steal from the student council room than black ones). I do not know why I started doing this, but it made me feel like a professional, so I kept at it.
I began trying to write poetry because I was inspired by the assigned readings in my grade nine English class. Inspiration, however, did not strike in the traditional way: I read a Charles Bukowski poem and thought, “I can do that!” (but without the misogyny). I then went home and googled “poetry,” and upon discovering Rupi Kaur, I thought, “I can really do that!” And so, like many other contemporary poets, I wrote my very own Instagram poetry and was utterly convinced that I was revolutionizing the genre.
I had a group of friends that I would share all my work with, usually as soon as I had finished it. After hiding my notebook under the French grammar workbook on my desk for the better part of our fifty-minute class periods, writing when I knew my teacher was not paying attention, I would bookmark my latest work and pass it behind me for a friend to read. Their reactions were always the same: “you are so talented,” “this is incredible,” “you’re the next [our choice Young Adult author of the month]”. And I knew then what I know now, which is that my friends were going to be incredibly kind no matter what I presented them with. As fellow artsy people in a STEM-centric school, they never failed to support me and all my creative endeavours.
Apart from my friends, I would also share my work with the teacher who had initially presented me with Bukowski—among many other authors that have greatly influenced me, such as Maya Angelou and Leonard Cohen—and he, too, would graciously welcome it. Blessed with a shred of self-awareness, I once asked him if I was bothering him by shoving new poems under his nose day in and day out, and he replied, “are you kidding? This is my daily dose of poetry!” I eventually stopped asking him to read my work, and stopped writing altogether, but when I picked the hobby back up years later, I still found his words to be encouraging.
This would be a really boring piece if I had ever produced any good poetry in high school. Despite the encouragement I received from my friends and token emotional support English teacher, my writing is ridiculous and laughable, and that makes me endlessly happy. I have begun to take creative writing more seriously in recent years, and, if nothing else, rereading my old work reminds me that I have grown exponentially. Here are some highlights from my three journals, complete with author’s notes and anecdotes about what provided the inspiration for each poem. The order in which I am presenting these poems to you is in the chronological order that I wrote them, among maybe fifty others, over two years. Upon typing them out, I realize that for the first year I was absolutely married to the four-line-stanza format, and I have no idea why.
“The imposing of rules
Is more like
The implication of
But how can you know
What freedom is
When all you have
This one was born from a mind filled with dystopian YA fiction. I do not think the sentiments presented in this poem have any relation to a particular situation in my life, but I was so enthralled with YA female protagonists that I wanted to embody them as often as possible. I think this first poem is very much the manifestation of that desire. If I did not know that this was written in 2015, I would assume that a COVID-denier had posted it on social media, and it went viral. This sounds like every single Facebook post that I have read against my will on the pages of my anti-vaxx cousins. If I received this poem as an editor, my notes would involve changing “imposing” to “imposition,” a word I do not think I knew at the time of writing. Overall, I think this poem is laughable but not too embarrassing to share, because I can hide behind the safe excuse of having been influenced by YA dystopia. I rate it a Divergent/10
“If you were to
Outside the box,
I would tell you
That I am the box
And I could never
This was my magnum opus in grade nine. “I am the box”–groundbreaking! I have included this poem because when I wrote it, I thought it was so good that I wanted everyone I knew to read it. I showed it to one of the teachers that ran the student council, who was so supportive that she included it in the student newsletter that week. The newsletter consisted of one double-sided sheet of paper, which nobody read, but I was thrilled nonetheless. I suppose that this is therefore my first published poem. (And in print, too!) I think the most entertaining aspect of this poem is that I still cannot tell whether I was the box after all. Moreover, what does “the box” mean? If the box represents everyone else’s thoughts, I think that fourteen-year-old me acknowledged that she was quite similar to her peers and felt safe inside the box. But if she was the box, does that mean that she was the first person to have the thoughts that everyone else would eventually have? (She, as in, past me, of course.) I do not think that I was confident enough to consider myself to be the box in that sense, which leads me to believe that maybe the box was meant to be read as my self-imposed limitations. This poem is just as silly and fake-deep as the previous one, but at least some nuance exists in this one. Rating: Box/10
“We are bound to our emotions
By a thread:
A thread that is so thin
That most people pretend it’s not there”
Who hurt me? Nobody, but I am a teenager learning the meaning of the word “melodrama” for the first time and deeply embodying it. I think this poem is a perfect example of just how much Tumblr affected an entire generation of young women. This reads like it would be featured in a black and white picture of a journal that would get thousands of reblogs. It would be the caption of some screencap of a scene from Sherlock. Someone would pretend it was a lyric from an unreleased Lana Del Rey song. Am I going too far? This is an informal confession of the fact that I got a lot of my inspiration from similar posts on social media. I would like to think that I was aware of the pure unoriginality of my work, but I cannot say for sure. This poem was definitely pointed at a specific person in my life, and the situation was undoubtedly earth-shattering at the time, but it makes for wonderful amusement now. I think that I have always had too many emotions and not enough space in my body for all of them. Rating: Pisces Sun/10
“the right one does not
stand in your way
they make space for you
to step forward”
Just kidding, this is from Rupi Kaur’s the sun and her flowers, but does it fit in well with the rest of them? I do not know which answer I would prefer, so answer honestly. First of all, I was and still am too devoted to proper spelling and grammar to ever do away with capital letters or punctuation. This is, however, only composed of four lines, so kudos to her for adopting my very original technique. I am not claiming that my work as a fourteen-year-old poet can be compared to Rupi Kaur’s, but I am saying that if her next book has anything to do with a box, she owes me royalties. I rate this poem a Poet of the Year Award/10.
Thoughts From Science Class
“You are just as selfish
As the blood type AB+:
And giving but to yourself.
You should be more like
Blood type O-:
And taking from but yourself”
I may have discovered the use of titles, but worry not, I have yet to give up on the four-line stanza format. This poem is my favourite on the list because it is so unbelievably silly, and I have to believe that I knew that when I wrote it. I wrote this in the middle of a grade nine biology lesson, and to be quite honest, it very much helped me remember which blood type was the universal donor. (I am proud to admit that I still remember the fact because of this poem.) I am firm in the belief that this would be a good poem if it was written in 2022, because it is fun, light, and does not take itself too seriously. It is ironic, makes science fun, and informs. Dare I say it: this poem is camp. It helped me pass the unit test on the cardiovascular system and I am forever grateful for that. I therefore rate it a 10/10, just like my grade.
Love Is In The Air
“I once walked into a store
showcasing its latest
The eighth wonder
of the world, and
the light at the
end of the tunnel, and
the closest thing we have to magic
were all contained in that
A bottle worth
fifty dollars, because
fifty dollars was all it
took to be engulfed in love, showered
and protection. Everything I
had ever wanted in life was in
the palm of my hand, but they
sold me strawberries
Yes! Free verse! Go me! We have now crossed into third-journal territory, and I am fifteen years old. I wrote this immediately after reading Margaret Atwood’s “Variations on the Word Love” and I was utterly obsessed with trying to figure out why the word “love” carried so much weight. (I have not yet figured it out, in case you were wondering.) The page of my notebook with this poem on it also contains a post-it that reads, “Hey, future Julia! If you’re re-reading your past work and cringe-ing, don’t worry. I know it’s bad. But do me a favour and rewrite this when you fall in love! Thanks!” At least she’s self-aware. I do not think that falling in love has helped me better grasp the commodification of love and the power that words hold, but teenage me was also a hopeless romantic, so I think she would be satisfied, nonetheless. I would also like to point out that the line “the closest thing we have to magic” was stolen directly from the 2006 movie Aquamarine. I must admit that this phrase may have had more of an impact on me than any of Atwood’s work. I rate this poem Strawberries and Chocolate/10.
Motivation To Keep Going
“You are just a
speck in the
universe. Part of
a community that doesn’t
make a dent. A city, a
state, a country, a continent
that simply doesn’t matter.
This planet in this galaxy
in this universe has no impact
whatsoever. And your silly mistake? Your
enormous, back-breaking weight
of regret? Your small failures will
not change the course of
your life in any way. You
will persevere. You will
survive and thrive. Don’t
forget why you started.
Close your eyes. Deep breaths. In and out.
One day you’ll look
back to your stressful moments
and wonder why you
were ever worried
This is the last poem in my three notebooks, which I wrote immediately after failing a math test. I arrived at my next period class sobbing (as one does when one is obsessed with academic validation) and my best friend offered the advice she always did when things seemed bleakest: “Nothing matters, we all die anyway”. And thus was born the semi-existential, semi-motivational, definitely shallow final poem in this collection. Rereading it now, it reminds me of the scene in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where the protagonist writes his name, school, city, country, etc. until he ends up at “universe”. Stephen Daedalus or Julia Bifulco? Who knows. Anyway, a big thank you to logarithmic equations for inspiring this poem, because where else would the world have gotten beautifully-written lines like “Close your eyes. Deep breaths. In and out”? The title also really makes me laugh because I had no choice but to “keep going,” given that I needed to pass my math class in order to graduate high school. Not to mention that I was in high school because it was mandated by the law. But I digress. This poem is a Scientific Calculator/10.
It would be much easier to conclude this piece without including any of my current poetry, because if it seemed even the slightest bit equal in quality to my work from seven years ago, this would be the place for me to face that terrifying realization. I particularly like the following poem, because ever since I read Atwood’s poem and wrote “Love Is In The Air,” I have continued to be enthralled by the power that the word “love” holds. And now that I have grown significantly, and fallen in love, as per fifteen-year-old-me’s request, I have written an updated version of an old poem. I would like to point out that I wrote this months before revisiting my high school work, which leads me to believe that I still carry that young poet’s aspirations within me.
To Conjugate Love
The professor with the purple locks mused,
“when you’re asked what you learned
from your Latin class years from now,
amō, amās, amat, amāmus, amātis, amant
Twelve years ago I cracked the spine
of a brand-new French verb dictionary
the first day we learned
à conjuguer les verbes du premier groupe.
My teacher gave us a trick:
if it ends in ‘-er,’ chances are you can do
with it what you would with ‘to love’.
(Nothing, however, is certain in French.)
To eat, to love, to dance, to love, to share, to love.
To go is not to love—
‘aller’ fait partie du troisième groupe.
I ignored my first-ever boyfriend
when he said, “je t’aime”
exactly one month after he kissed me in the trees.
I gave him a chance to rectify, you see—
I didn’t want to have to break the news
that I simply could not conjure the intoxicating,
all-consuming emotions that were
worthy of that word.
Did you know that there’s no French
word for ‘to like’?
They skip straight to love.
I pointed at a car with ‘JTM’ as
its final license plate letters
exactly one month before he broke up with
me for being too much.
“You know it makes me uncomfortable when you say that.”
We have infinite ways of loving,
and yet we tiptoe around the words
as flames dance around candles.
We cannot get too close until we do,
and then we cannot get close enough.
I have hidden my love away
until it forced its way out of me.
I have shrieked so deafeningly for love that
my throat has turned raw.
And yet, without fail,
at the beginning of every language class,
I learn to love again.
I think I have been too hard on my younger self. These poems are not that bad, especially considering much worse poetry is currently being published and praised. Did high-school-me write badly? Yes, undoubtedly. Does current-me write badly? Hopefully future-me thinks so to a certain extent—because it means I will have consistently been improving. I am such a nostalgic, sentimental person that I think keeping little time capsules, as I have done with my journals, is so important in the process of recognizing growth. And I think that this applies not only to growing artistically, but personally; the two are intertwined. All in all, I hope I continue to write pages and pages of my silly little words for the rest of my life.