By: Doron Levine  | 

She Did Not Give Me Wasabi

Alas, my college years are fading and my dream of becoming a published poet remains tragically unrealized. Glory has rebuffed my repeated advances. Literary fame eludes me; my stomach is famished of that fickle food, satiated instead on wormwood and gall. And it’s not for lack of trying.

Twice during my years at YU I submitted a poem to YU’s Journal of Fine Arts, and twice my work was rejected. I also entered a poem into Yeshiva College’s writing contest, only to learn that the faculty judges value my poetry as little as the Journal’s staff does. My career as a balladeer lay in shambles and I wept.

Seeking solace, I recalled the normative epistemic principle that my professor taught me in First Year Writing: be skeptical of everything. The only heresy is certainty – we must ruthlessly interrogate every last one of our beliefs, no matter how dearly held. I was young and credulous, so I trusted my professor’s advice and was quickly converted, baptized in the sweet waters of uncertainty. In the inquisition of doubt, no creed was safe from the auto-da-fé. I zealously adhered to my newfound disbelief, becoming devoutly skeptical of everything. (This of course included being skeptical of the idea that I should be skeptical of everything, skeptical of my teacher’s motivation for producing this maxim, and skeptical of the selective manner in which people tend to adhere to this sort of imperative.)

Three years older now but no less dubious, I am skeptical of the Journal’s decision. How can anyone be certain of anything, let alone the poor quality of a poem? But you can judge for yourself -- here is the poem I submitted to the Journal of Fine Arts this year:

She asked if I wanted wasabi

I said yes

She did not give me wasabi

Brilliant verse? Perhaps not. I am more than open to the possibility that my poetry is bad, and I do not wish to come across as a sore loser. So instead of wallowing in self-pity, I elect to approach this sad ordeal as a teachable moment. The experience of being thrice denied before graduation solidified one of the primary lessons that I learned during college.

We are told that college is discovery. We are told that during our undergraduate years we unlock our boundless potential and explore the world of opportunities open to us; we can choose from diverse areas of study; we can mix and match courses in math and science with the liberal arts; we can relax and explore the YU core; we might double major; we might double minor; we might even join a club. People who we trust shower us with optimism, enjoining us to use these four formative years to shop around and discover our calling.

But this promise is more aspirational than realistic. Opportunity soon turns to desperation as we quickly succumb to the crushing pressure to choose a profession. By the second year of college, time is running out and there is no more postponing the decision; we’ve reached the end of our general education and now it’s time to specialize, to pigeonhole ourselves and determine what line of work will occupy our thoughts and dictate our actions for the majority of our remaining waking hours.

And at the end of the day, there aren’t very many options. Supporting a Jewish family is expensive, so when push comes to shove YU students tend to choose from a small menu of classic professions: law, medicine, computer science, accounting, finance. The spectrum of possibilities, we soon discover, is miserably narrow. Even the very notion that we must decide “what to do in life” is severely constraining. The requirement to choose, at such a young age, one area of specialty that will regiment the rest of our existence is almost tragic.

Thus college was, at least for me, a time of contraction rather than expansion. It was less about discovering hidden potential and more about discovering hidden limitations. For me and for many of my peers, college was a transitional period when we discovered that “anything is possible” is a pipe dream. We are restricted in countless ways – by our social and economic circumstances, by our religious values, by our skills and by our shortcomings, and by the crushing obligation to make money. Reality sets in, and objective considerations overwhelm our subjective aspirations.

In other words, in college we learn the limits of that thing we call self-expression. The cloudy implication behind this idea, the suggestion that we are able to say and do and think and become what we want, that we have the ability to live our lives in a way that maximizes personal fulfillment and happiness, contradicts much of what we know about how the world functions.

This is the idea conveyed in my poem and mirrored by my experience attempting to have it published. The story it tells is factual, a simple but harrowing tale of desire and denial: I wanted wasabi, but she did not give me wasabi. The story of its publication is similarly heartbreaking: I wanted to publish it, but the Journal of Fine Arts did not publish it. I wished to express myself publicly through the medium of poetry, but the powers that be determined that my self-expression was not worth expressing. I’m lucky to have this editorial platform to self-publish my work; others are not so fortunate.

What if writing poetry is what gives my life meaning? Must I forgo fulfillment merely because my calling happens to involve something I am bad at?

Though college is full of frustration and disillusion, this episode is particularly striking because it revolves around poetry. The introduction to this year’s Journal of Fine Arts says: “Art is the expression of the most inexpressible emotions and observations, tragically and elegantly, sometimes grotesquely portrayed, all for the basic goal of humanizing ourselves.” Poetry is supposed to express deeply personal reflections, to bare a piece of the poet’s soul.

But the conception of poetry as pure self-expression is challenged by this incident. If poetry is truly an expression of our innermost thoughts and feelings, then how can a publication determine that certain poems are better than others? Without direct access to my mental life, how can anyone judge how effectively I am expressing myself? I wonder, then, not how could they reject my poetry, but how could they reject anyone’s poetry? Judgment on these matters should be for God alone, for he knoweth the thoughts of man.

Obviously, the solution is a rejection of the assumption. There is some objective standard of beauty being applied, some measure of value that passes judgment over the works submitted and determines that certain pieces of self-expression are better than others.

The same principle applies to our careers, during college and beyond. Despite our best efforts to express ourselves and become what we want to become, reality limits us in every direction. I want to be a physicist, but I lack the requisite intellectual prowess. I want to be a professional basketball player, but my stature precludes that career path. I want to be a poet, but I am lousy at writing poetry. I want to be a professional couch potato, but potatoing doesn’t pay the bills.

I wanted wasabi, but she did not give me wasabi.

So this one goes out to all those harboring unfulfilled dreams, my fellow unpublished poets who dejectedly wander the doldrums of denial and suffer in silence. If there can be any solace for these poor languishing souls, it must be the promise of a world of truth where men are free to express themselves, liberated from the earthly fetters that once trammeled their spirits. In that sparkling Valhalla, all poems sincerely composed are published and all who ask for wasabi receive it.

But gulp down your tears and hie aloft to the royal-mast with your hearts; for your friends who have gone before are clearing out the seven-storied heavens, and making refugees of long-pampered Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, against your coming. Here ye strike but splintered hearts together—there, ye shall strike unsplinterable glasses!
                                                                 —Herman Melville, Moby Dick