Finding Poetry in Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
We are the product of the books we read as children and young adults. They shape the vocabulary we use to shape the world we live in: they spark interests, ideas and ideals that we may never be aware of. Sometimes we are lucky. Sometimes we can pinpoint the exact moment when everything changed.
I was fourteen. I read as if the books were oxygen and I risked suffocating if I stopped for more than a few minutes. I was as indifferent to books as a coyote is to food – I needed words more than I needed quality, and it was rare that I came across something that would actually make me slow down. It was even rarer for me to hit something that would make me speed up at the toprushing to the end so I could close the book, sigh, turn it over, and start over from the beginning.
I liked fairy tales. I liked folk music. When I found a book in a line of fairy tale books, with a title taken from a ballad, I thought it would be good for a few hours.
I didn’t expect it to change my life.
Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean, is one of those books that defies description in the best way, because it is both and is not a fantasy. For most of the book, it’s the story of a girl named Janet starting her college life, with all the changes and chaos that entails. She sees weird things on campus. Okay. Everyone sees weird things on campus. I was already taking classes at the community college across the street from my high school, and I had seen a man with six squirrels on a leash, a woman attending all of his classes in a ballgown, and a person we all called “Troll” whose wardrobe consisted mostly of chain mail and rabbit skins.College campuses are full of weird things.
Only his weird things are real, and finally they make it clear that the book is a fantasy, and more, that Janet is in some pretty deep shit. Fun for the whole family! It’s a solid, well-written, remarkable book that stands up well to the passage of time, and is in many ways one of the foundations of urban fantasy as we know it today (which is a whole another article, much longer). Even if there was nothing to recommend other than what I have already said, I would have loved it deeply and revisited it often.
But Janet – smart, sensible, bibliophile, who was everything I wanted to be when I grew up – loved poetry. She wrote a sonnet every day, “just to keep her hand,” and the book followed the process of composing one of those sonnets, linking it skillfully to the story as a whole. I’ll be honest: I just didn’t know How? ‘Or’ What skillfully until the fifth or sixth time I read the book, because I was too busy staring blankly into space. I had found one of the pieces I needed to build the woman I wanted to be.
I had found poetry.
Everyone I knew wrote poetry: it was a class assignment distributed with remarkable frequency in the gifted and talented classes, it was a pass for the literary magazine and its vaunted extra credit points, it was was a quick and easy way to impress teachers. And I already knew how to write sonnets, having been taught at a young age by an aunt trying to prove a point about child development and expectations. But I never thought I could just… write it. I could sit down and write a sonnet for no other reason than I wanted to write a sonnet.
As of this writing, I have an old black binder covered in some kind of embarrassing stickers that looked quite shiny to me when I was fourteen. It’s so thick it’s about to burst. I don’t think the rings would ever close if I opened them now. It contains sonnets worthy of a high school diploma, one a day from the time I first read Tam Lin until the end of my school career. They’re all technically perfect, even if most of them are self-indulgent and derivative enough to never see the light of day. And towards the end of the four-year project, over 1,500 (because sometimes I got excited and wrote two), they got Well. I may not be the next Shakespeare or queen of the sonnet in the modern world, but I got good. It still surprises me.
Poetry is an incredibly important part of my life, and I don’t know if I would have that – the passion or the practice – if I hadn’t read Tam Lin when I did, when I felt receptive. It changed my world forever. (It also saved my life, thanks to the introduction of the idea of the conversational code word for “I need help, drop everything and come on”, in the form of “pink curtains”. Without it, I don’t think I would be here today.)
Tam Lin is a book about choices and consequences, friendships and relationships, and how our adult selves are built on the bones of the children we once were. It is also poetry. If Pamela Dean had never written another word, she would still deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest, just for this book.
Originally published September 2016.
Seanan McGuire is the author of the award-winning Wayward Children series Hugo, Nebula, Alex and Locus; the October Daye series; the InCryptid series; the deliciously dark Mid game; and other works. She also writes comics for Marvel, darker fiction like Mira Grant and younger fiction like A. Deborah Baker. Seanan lives in Seattle with her cats, an extensive collection of creepy dolls, horror movies, and enough books to qualify her as a fire hazard. She won the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2013 became the first person to appear on the same Hugo newsletter five times.