Let's start the year with a little tragi-comedy from David Benn ...
A cold overcast morning had become a sodden grey Sunday afternoon. I had pushed our small kitchen table up against the sliding glass doors that looked out onto our tiny inner city back yard. The drizzle settled on the drooping ferns and vines and trickled down the fronds and leaves, dripping onto the dark concrete paving stones below.
‘Dad, can you help me with my homework?’
I looked up from my laptop. My younger son, James, still dressed in his blue and white striped flannelette pyjamas, didn’t wait for an answer. He dragged a chair across the dining room floor and sat beside me with an exercise book.
‘Yeah, little fella. What do you need help with?’
‘I have to do a poem. Can you to listen to it.’
‘I can do that.’
I looked at his scratchy juvenile printing as he read aloud. ‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. Most poems rhyme. And this one does too.’
James looked up at me with a blank expression for a few seconds. ‘What do you think?’
I swallowed and stared back at him. ‘What grade are you in again?’
I rested my head on the palm of my hand. ‘Um. I’m sure your English teacher told you the poem had to be about something.’
James looked down at his notepad. ‘She said it didn’t have to be about anything, but we had to write something that elethits. Elithets.’
‘Yes, elicits an emotion …’ James frowned and trailed off.
‘Elicits an emotional response from the reader.’
‘Yeah, that’s it.’
I paused to select my words. ‘Well, I find that for a poem to make me feel something, there has to be a line or even just a few words that are unexpected.’
James looked up at me with large watery eyes and blinked. ‘You think my poem needs something unexpected.’
‘Writing poetry is a creative process. Change one or two words to begin with.’
James took his exercise book and slid off the chair. My heart grew heavy and sank in my chest as I watched him walk up the stairs to his bedroom.
I was still looking out the glass doors at the sopping star jasmine falling over the back fence and trying to remember my own adolescent poetry when James returned and sat beside me.
I pulled him close and put my arm around his shoulders. ‘Did you try changing it?’
‘Yes. Are you ready?’
‘Yeah, I’m ready.’
James lifted up his exercise book and raised his voice. ‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. Most poems rhyme. But this one doesn’t.’
He looked up and stared at me with his large dark eyes. I held his gaze, forcing the sides of my mouth down so they wouldn’t curl into a smile. James sucked his lips between his teeth. I had to bite the end of my tongue.
James dropped the exercise book onto his lap and burst out laughing. ‘But this one doesn’t! Was that unexpected enough for you?’
Laughing and gasping for breath, he placed his forehead on the table. After a few seconds he regained control and turned his head to look at me. His eyes were wet with tears. ‘So how did it make you feel?’
I closed my eyes. ‘Underwhelmed.’
He started laughing again.
Sighing, I rubbed my chin and looked at my son. ‘James, did your teacher really ask you to write a poem?’
‘No.’ He tried to stifle his laughter and wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his pyjamas. ‘I finished all my homework and had nothing else to do.’
text David Benn;