Never thank a thenk

It all started with an innocuous ad in our local library: a call for submissions for a poetry contest, from an entity called the Canadian Chamber of Contemporary Poetry.

Submitting poems

It was quite a collection. Did I write all 36 of them in one sitting?

I recall a poem called Laundry Day, told from the point-of-view of an overworked mother lamenting domestic duties: “Oh, how I hate Mondays / It is the laundry day / I have to clean up the dirty clothes / And that’s why I hate Mondays.” A poignant line lodged in my memory goes: “I’d move to Argentina / But I still have baby Corina.” (See, even if she escapes the house, she can never escape responsibility.)

As for the aforementioned 12-verse epic Simba of the White Mane, well, there’s an actual book called that, pre Lion King. I literally saw the book lying in my basement and straight-up stole the title.

Other classics from my 36-poem collection included a hilarious novelty poem called “The School Was Overflowing,” and I can’t recall if it was about overcrowding or flooding, just that it was quite the zippy read.

Anyway, with all these poems to choose from, I was a surprised when I got the letter in the mail telling me that the Chamber had selected one of my poems.

Just one? I thought, feeling disappointed. Not all of them?

And, why this one?

It was a seven-line Seuss-inspired nonsense poem, called Never Thank a Thenk. It went like this:

“Never thank a thenk
Cause if you do
A thenk will think
About the things he thunk.
And if a thenk thinks his thunks
He’ll do the things the thenk has thunk
And a thenk thinks terrible things.”

Still, it was easy to be excited. My poem was going to be published, and I don’t even like poetry! I signed the appropriate paperwork, and my parents agreed to pay the $20 for a physical copy of the book it was to be published in, and I wrote a dedication: “To my mom, who inspired me to enter the poetry contest.”

As you can imagine, the experience had a strong impact on my sense of identity. I can write. I can win stuff. And it’s easy!

As my childhood went on, I began to recognize that I had been scammed. Well, “scam” might be too strong a word, but at least “taken advantage of.” A poetry contest that publishes so many participants’ entries, asks for an entry fee, and asks winners to purchase their own published work, is not exactly an above-board literary honour. The “Canadian Chamber of Contemporary Poetry” was a virtually non-existent organization trying to hustle young writers and make a buck, while, sure, promoting Canadian literary talent.

It’s hard to untangle formative experiences, and deconstruct identity. Before this contest ever happened, what did writing mean to me? If the contest hadn’t happened, would I have held the idea of “being a writer” so close to my identity? If it wasn’t an external authority validating my work, what would I myself say about my own writing? Do I even want to do this, or was a foundational childhood experience errantly influenced by predatory publishers?

This week, the words from “Never Thank a Thenk” popped into my head, and I spontaneously began to recite it out loud, to myself, in a dramatic voice. I stopped cold once I finished, as a new meaning dawned on me.

I’ve always known, unconsciously, that a “thenk” was a proxy for myself. The deliberate misspelling of a common word with an alternative vowel? That’s being a Kevan in a Kevin’s world.

As I recited and rethought those lines this week, I realized it’s a poem about a person who doesn’t trust himself to think independently, out of fear.

To “never thank” would be to never acknowledge or welcome or support one’s self.

Following that viewpoint, the poem could be interpreted this way:

“Don’t be too kind to yourself,
Cause if you do
You might think
your own thoughts.
And if you think
Your own thoughts,
You might act on your thoughts,
And you think terrible things.”

It blew my mind right open this week to see the unconscious message loaded into my own childhood poem. To be clear, I don’t believe 8-year-old me wrote that meaning purposefully. But I recognize that internalized message as a lifelong pattern from inside my own mind:  distrusting myself, fearing my own thoughts, anxious about my own worth.

Can you see it, in the same pitiful light I’m seeing it? A poem whose very meaning is about self-distrust, being shipped off to be validated by external authorities?

I won’t give my kid-self too hard a time. He was doing the best he could (and he did great). But one of the things I still need to return to is allowing myself to trust, care for, welcome and acknowledge my own self and voice.

The literal retranslation I’d like to shoot for would end up meaning this:

“You can acknowledge and welcome your authentic self.
When you do,
it gives you the freedom to connect
with your honest thoughts, feelings and needs.
And when that happens,
You’re able to make clear-eyed, unafraid choices.
Your thoughts don’t define you, nor force you to act.
And your mind and heart is perfectly worthy.”

So let me try again, re-encoding the message to younger version of myself in the hopes it can carry forward to today’s version, still carrying the same Seuss-inspired novelty vibes, but this time, with a new slant:

“Always thank a thenk
Cause when you do
A thenk can think
About the things he thunk.
And when a thenk thinks his thunks
He’ll be the thenk he always was
And a thenk thinks thinkable things.”