The poem in question: What If?
I do not like this poem. I like the idea behind it, but I think the poem itself is not good. I often have ideas that sound really great in my head, and once they break free somehow become a congealed mass of vague incomprehensibility. One such example was today in a Sunday meeting when the teacher asked a question about what you could say to someone who thinks that church is not necessary to attend; the important thing is to spend time with your family, building family relationships, ekcetra, ekcetra. The thought in my head was about being a good example for our families, especially our children, and helping them learn good priorities and the importance of Christ in our lives. I certainly can’t inculcate all that without some divine help, which includes Sunday worship, among other things. When I raised my hand to actually answer the question, it came out very strangely, and then other people started chiming in with other answers, one of which was what I was trying to say, but in an actual sense-making fashion.
Without digging in to look too closely right now, I expect that a large share of my poems are focused on negative emotions and experiences, rather than happy things. This is because, for me at least, happy things are way harder to write about without sounding stupid. My use of language seems to flourish more when dwelling on the depressing. I am proud of the successes I experience in treating happier subjects, because those successes are harder for me to come by.
This is not one of those successes.
As a brief side note before commenting on the text of the poem, I once wrote a poem called "Words," I believe at about the same time I wrote What If? It was a What If?-style treatment of the different effects words can have on people. Sadly, that is all I can remember about it, because at some point I decided it was terrible and purged all copies of it. I wish I could look back on it now, even though I suspect that I would still find it awful.
When I say about the same time as What If?, I am referring to November of 1995. My notebook has two dates: 11/95 and 7/9/96. The poem as displayed on the site is dated July 9, 1996. If I think it is bad now, I wonder how bad I thought it was 11 years ago that I had to rewrite it then. As I type this, I realize that these two days are significant, at least as they relate to what was happening in my life at the times.
November of 1995, to the best of my knowledge, was when I first started growing attached to my high school girlfriend that I have mentioned before. At the time, this girl made me want to be the best person that I knew how to be. I tried hard to Do Things Right in my life (though not exceptionally hard, it would seem, as a lot of our relationship–possibly the bulk of it–occurred before I was sixteen, and as I have mentioned before we do not date before we are sixteen in the LDS church). I suspect that those feelings were at the root of "Words" and What If? This also means that my return to poetry after my freshman English class two years prior happened some four or so months before I thought it did, as referenced in the commentary for What Lies In Wait.
I also suspect that the revisions made in July 1996 were inspired in some way by the poems I had written a few days earlier, namely Insincerity and Cried Out, as those poems were about a girl by whose relationship with me What If? was originally inspired. I don’t know, and don’t suspect I ever will, as I don’t have the original version of What If? any longer. It was tossed out along with "Words."
Regarding the text itself, one of the big problems is it is just clunky, any way you read it. As I said, I like the ideas, but the execution of their expression is just that. The basic structure is simple: A few lines about What If everything was lovely and wonderful, then some about What If everything was crappy, and then an admonition which I feel is actually the best line of the poem:
Try to turn a good "what if" into "what really is."
I don’t have much else to say except to note a few differences in the electronic copies I have, e.g. the one on the site, versus the one in my notebook. Also, as my notebook copies are all written in pencil, I have just done some heavy squinting at some old erase marks and found some even earlier versions, perhaps even from the original.
Web site: Can you picture the effect upon the world’s state?
Notebook: Can you even picture the effect on the world’s state?
Web site and Notebook: There’d be no one left to care, no one left to give.
Erased notebook: There’d be no one to care, and there’d be no one to give.
Web site: Life might not be worth the running of its course.
Notebook: Life might well not be worth the running of its course.
Erased notebook: Life might not well not be worth living, of course.
Web site: Which "what if" would you choose to create a better world?
Notebook: Which "what if" would you choose, to make a better world?
Web site and Notebook: If you care about your loved ones, you might consider this:
Erased notebook: If you care about your loved ones, what you should do is this:
Overall, I prefer the web site version, though it’s really sixes with the revised notebook copy. The erased notebook copy is definitely the worst, but when I’m talking about a poem I don’t really like to begin with, it probably doesn’t matter anyway.