Every Good Boy Does Fine

Part 3 of David Wagoner’s “Traveling Light :From Collected Poems, 1956-1976” focuses on various aspects of creativity. While I found more poems I liked here than I anticipated (I’m not too fond of artists discussing creativity), my favorite poem was still one entitled “Every Good Boy Does Fine, ” a poem I encountered years ago in an anthology for high school students. It has everything I admire in a poem: simplicity, vivid images, and rich symbols:

Every Good Boy Does Fine

I practiced my cornet in a cold garage
Where I could blast it till the oil in drums
Boomed back; tossed free throws till I couldn’t move my thumbs;
Sprinted through tires, tackling a headless dummy.

In my first contest, playing a wobbly solo,
I blew up in the coda, alone on stage,
And twisting like my hand-tied necktie, saw the judge
Letting my silence dwindle down his scale.

At my first basketball game, gangling away from home
A hundred miles by bus to a dressing room,
Under the showering voice of the coach, I stood in a towel,
Having forgotten shoes, socks, uniform.

In my first football game, the first play under the lights
I intercepted a pass. For seventy yards, I ran
Through music and squeals, surging, lifting my cleats,
Only to be brought down by the safety man.

I took my second chances with less care, but in dreams
I saw the bald judge slumped in the front row,
The coach and team at the doorway, the safety man
Galloping loud at my heels. They watch me now.

You who have always homed your way through passages,
Sat safe on the bench while some came naked to court,
Slipped out of arms to win in the long run,
Consider this poem a failure, sprawling flat on a page.

The delightful irony of this poem title may be what makes it so memorable. This poem rings true to my experiences and even more so to the experiences of my children, probably because their childhood seems so much more vivid to me than my own. First attempts, and often many after that, meet with failure. I can remember my own stage fright when I had a part in my grade school play, a part based on my classroom performance, by the way, not on any desire to expose myself to public ridicule. While outgoing and boisterous in class with people I know, I have always been extremely shy around strangers. I decided from that day on that I never wanted to be on stage again, even though I was convinced to volunteer again in high school. Gradually public speaking became easier, but I have never really felt comfortable in front of an audience.

Luckily I’ve never had the bad experience of forgetting my gym clothes, but you’re not as “preoccupied,” or absent minded, as I am without being unprepared for many an event. I still remember a long hike where I forgot my boots and had to wear sandals on my trek up the mountain. Despite my dreams, I never made my high school football team, but the first time I played in the army I got an elbow to the chin that left me without hearing for a day and a half and stunned enough that I had to leave the game. Still, I was out on the field game after game giving it my best shot, even if I was 40 pounds too light to play on the line. I’ve never regretted it.

When my kids were growing up, I only had a few rules about participating in different activities: if you started something you had to finish it; if you played you had to do your best; and, you could always quit at the end of the season if you wanted to, it was your choice, not mine. As a result, they both seem to have grown up more confident than I ever was and are both willing to risk many things I never would.

All of us are probably haunted by our failures, but the real failures are those who are afraid to take the chances to do what they really want to do. There’s no reason to play football, or participate in one particular activity, but it’s a mistake not to play football or participate in a play simply because you’re afraid you will fail. Failure is less destructive than not giving life a chance.

Needless to say, I don’t consider this poem a failure.