Universality in Poetry

It’s an inevitability that you encounter poet Phillip Larkin’s piece “This Be the Verse” at some point within your poetry career. Sometimes it’s an embittered eleventh English teacher who shows it to you partly because its use of the word “fuck” will catch your class’ attention long enough that they stop texting under the desks, partly because they have their own shit going on. It’s a short enough poem that it makes the rounds on platforms like Facebook, lends itself to Pinterest typography, can be photographed from poetry collections using Snapchat filters and sepia for Tumblr. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do.” Well-constructed as the rest of the poem might be, there’s little need to read the rest of it. Those two lines bleed universality. It doesn’t matter how idyllic your childhood was; no parent/guardian is perfect, and they dropped the ball at some point. If they were even holding one to begin with.

How, then, do you integrate universality into poetry? If a poem is interpreted to be a snapshot stuck somewhere between the author and the outside world – depending on where you believe the source is – how do you write a line that can be so applicable to most of the population without being so vague as to devalue the poem as a whole? There are very few universal experiences to begin with – being raised by something or some entity, no matter how removed or of what quality, is one of them – and what does that leave us with?

I Guess It Has to Come From Somewhere

What’s the reasoning behind my impulse to write poetry; who is the little man behind the green curtain? It’s probably the same inclination that made me gay; or it could be the flu shot. That time my baby-fat ankle got stuck in a banister at summer camp and three grown adults had to hoist me out while I first learned the consequences of my body, or the Tamagotchi that Zannia Zie took from me on the bus and completely fucking reset to the egg stage even though I had just raised the thing to adulthood which, for the record, is incredibly difficult, especially when you have thirteen of them on one lanyard and are constantly begging your mom to go to CVS for watch batteries before you lose all of your progress. It’s the spontaneity at which I slip paint sample cards into my pockets at Wal-Mart, or how I handle my desk garden of cacti with my bare hands because finding the worksafe gloves is too hard, twenty dollars I spent on them be damned. It’s all the daddy longlegs I pull from out from under my bed between my fingertips and name Samuel before tossing them out into the cold to die. An improvisation of authority and organization. That time my stupid bitch of a Spanish teacher made me cry because I couldn’t pronounce “isosceles” in Spanish, no less make one on my pegboard. All of the times I say “stupid bitch” despite having a Women and Gender Studies minor. The steak knife I think I’ve still forgotten to remove from under my childhood dresser, which I stowed there first to fix the broken 3DS my mother snapped in half out of anger and second to take slices out of my arm in case I needed to make someone worry. The time that I didn’t actually do that because blood would have made me cry. Stupid bitch. All fifty of the furbies I have scattered around; I used to name them all and now it’s getting hard to remember all that. It probably comes from somewhere; exists unwritten inside of me, or something. I prefer to think of it as something I have to win over in order for it to exist with gifts and kisses and sweet nothings.

It’s an incitement. 


I am what may be gently referred to as a “packrat”. Any harsher than that and I’ll get too defensive for you to convince me to edge the Vogue Magazine back issues I’ve been hoarding under my bed for some time now into the recycling bin. Paper tends to be my weakness for its flexibility – I decorated my walls last year exclusively with the legs of X-Acto-wrested models, now it’s several images from the American Got Milk? campaign. Just over a month ago I insisted on taking my girlfriend on a tour of Sturges, convinced that the building was on its last legs given the recent mass exodus of the health staff, clubs, and history professors, solely for the purpose of taking what they had all left behind – paper. Doodles, advertisements, misdated posters, flyers for STD prevention – I shoved it all into a cardboard box and took it back to my house for a gleeful day of cutting, snipping, and otherwise repurposing. Several totes and, most recently, one particularly large accordion file in my room are dedicated to holding these paper cutouts. Catalogues and fliers are dissected by me for their crispest images, most catching typography, and whatever else I’m convinced that I can make use of (hint, there’s a wide berth). Advertisements in particular fascinate me: remove the product and logo, and many an ad instantly becomes some form of basic-level poetry; or at least highly motivational, at worst. 

Wresting the means of art from companies and salvaging it from trash-bins is where my inspiration comes from – dipping my hand into my store and being able to draw out bits of a child’s hand-written homework, a Gucchi model whose eyes I accidentally removed with a poor scissor cut, and a double entendre from a Sun Chips advert sans the chips is the ultimate literary grab-bag; your mind can’t help but working it all over to make a cohesive narrative, just like what happens when we dream.