The day I sat down to start writing this, a snail began a slow tour up the glass door in my kitchen. ‘What’s he doing here?’ I mused, taking my eye off the ball for a moment. Is this a sign? I turned around, the snail had vanished. The penny dropped. Little snail was a sign for the opening of this paper. I realized that I needed to pose a question: about why I was interested in such a strange little flat-footed spirally thing; something both odd and every-day, seen in a flash, vanishing in a blink. What in the world do snails have to do with poetry? What is poetry? What do children have to do with poetry? What role do imagination creativity, reading and listening play in this scenario?
Let’s go back to our snail, special moments, signs and the mystery of rituals. Imagine yourself as a five or eight-year-old. Your pet hamster dies, you find a dead bird, what do you do? You make a parade. Maybe you bury it. Whatever the action you have a deep-seated need to create something special. Perhaps you are older and spot a racing hare or an orange sky. You want to capture the excitement and fluttering pulse of that moment. It feels right to give shape to the feeling that sits inside us. Maybe to tell someone, share in some way. Maybe that inside feeling is a rock. Perhaps it’s a swallow.
Our job, as poets and educators, is to guide children to recognize that giving expression to teach our youth that what matters to us as humans is important. We need to validate ritual. Poets have been saying this for a long time.
Let’s think about the building blocks of a poem; words. I’ll return later to the other living parts of a poem – the images and rhythms. For now, let’s consider the words we all come to learn and experience in some detail each day. Let’s add to that imagination. Perhaps this might be a good time to let you know a bit about me…
I don’t know exactly how it happened or when I started to write poetry. I cannot recall an AHA! moment, or my first lines, but one thing I do know – I have always been encouraged to follow my instincts and they were not very different from those of any other child.
Like everyone else I loved to play, to make things up. Imagination was the obvious currency. Music, dance, and words of all varieties took a big hold on me. I don’t think this was unusual. Most of my friends followed the same path. We grew up in a dynamic world, America during the 60’s. Words, lyrics, rhymes and tunes were around us continually, stimulating us to the core. There was exciting just-sprung rock and roll, Broadway show tunes my parents listened to, endless jingles on television. All new. All thrilling. My friends and I sang along to everything, danced, made up plays and learned lyrics. These were powerful influences.
As an adult I came to understand that having fun with words, their rhythms, energy and imagery, led me down a path where putting them together was an adventure. I loved these words, it didn’t take long before I discovered poetry and its trusty sidekick, metaphor. At around nine or ten, I remember sitting on my parents’ front porch and reading The World’s Best loved poems over and over. I memorized a lot of pieces in that book without fully understanding what they were about. I think I did it just for the pleasure of saying them out loud. Memorizing them was fun; I could repeat these words over and over whenever I felt like it.
Looking back, it’s clear that the sheer joy of playing with language was as natural to me and indeed all children, as breathing. I heard the sounds. I pictured the words. Imagination was the currency. I think the primary way we see the world is poetic.
Then we strive, our whole lives, to make sense of that world. I believe that the principle path taken, the way we try to learn about everything around us. This route, making imaginative and creative order out of chaos, with play at its core, is an intrinsically artistic process.
But the artist, like the child, cannot help but respond, to make things up, create illusions, offer alternatives. A child gathers in the world through the senses. When these senses are fed and developed the child naturally exhibits far greater acuity, understanding, perception, and appreciation of the world they find themselves in. As such, problem solving becomes easier, in every field.
There are three ways, and probably many more, in which I think poetry and children walk side by side. That they are a match made in heaven.
Children, like poetry, think about and refer to the big picture: Why is the sky blue? Where does my dog go when it dies? Why do I look like I do? A child’s approach to life they is unashamedly philosophical, they question, everything. The impulse is an honest and necessary one. Poetry, in its simplest apparition, takes the form of questioning the existence of whatever reality we come across.
Typical children’s questions and answers
Q: What’s inside the sun?
Q: What’s inside the earth?
A: Colours before they get their names.
Q: Who made the first circle?
A: Someone who got very dizzy.
Q: What draws the bee to the honeysuckle?
A: Ten million summers.
Q: What roars inside a seashell?
A: Beach lions.
Q: What roars inside you?
A: My blood
Q: How does one tie a rainbow?
A: The first thing is to find the ends.
Q: If it’s noon here, what time is it on Mars?
A: A billion years before noon.
Q: How long does it take to move a mountain?
A: Depends on the number of ants available.
Q: At what speed does a moth move to a lamp?
A: At light speed.
Q: Why is the letter I dotted?
A: To have a good time.
Children, like poets, perceive the world with a closeness, excitement and clarity of vision adults often lack or have forgotten. They will not just point to a worm wiggling in the ground but reach down to get closer, to see it, maybe to pick it up. Maybe stopping for a long time to stare at a wonderfully shaped or bizarre stone. Soon that stone takes on new dimensions. For if we look at something long enough and hard enough it can begin to take on a new identity. Rocks become figures, clouds shape, sounds say something. This is daily ritual for a child, it is precisely these heightened perceptions that put us in touch with the universals, that offer us new ways to see the world, new eyes. We perceive things according to the stored experiences we already know.
How to Get an Idea
Dig into Mud
Open up a new box of crayons
Run your finger through a bag of marbles
Skip a stone across water
Ask a cat to lend you one
Stand quietly under a dictionary
Stick out your tongue and say, “Ah!”
Put an empty picture frame on the wall and wait
I believe our first view of the world, once we have language, is an imaginative and poetic one. What we don’t understand, we endow with human attributes; animals say all kinds of things, shadows need to be tamed, stars answer our wishes. Anthropomorphising the universe is part of growing up. To understand the world, we recreate it in our own recognizable human image. This personalization of the environment is the beginning of metaphor. The first sparks of poetry. How does the fog come? It comes on little cat feet. This is problem solving of the highest and most imaginative order.
last evening you
rolled so loud and silver
past my window
that the shadows
woke and wove their dark
over my bed
in the criss-cross of
I knew what to do
and fold into a
Children are perpetual motion. They run, bound, hop, skip. An internal rhythm of new life surges throughout their bodies, they don’t miss a beat, just like good poetry. Children are far more expressive than adults. Children playing and moving freely, develop a certain vibrant memory. Some call it a sense memory. A child can freely call on this store of memories listening to a story or poem for poetry relies on the senses; on words that not only have muscle, but which you can practically see or taste or feel or smell. These words are exciting, stirring. Again, creativity depends on sense memory, on the ability to recreate from a store of remembered experiences.
My first blush of poetry happened because as a child I believed that the sun rose the instant I opened my eyes in the morning. I remember lying in bed and opening one eye at a time, seeing if I could fool the sun. But the sun was always there, loyal to me. I realized I was queen of the sun. I called these pre-school fantasies personal myths and it is these myths, which I collected from friends and family, that formed the basis of my first book of poems, Mud, Moon and Me published by Orchard Books and Houghton Mifflin.
Reading, listening, reacting to the world make us human. What is it that makes us the kings and queens of our world? What gives us the vision to express or understand the heady sentiments and urges that rest deep within us? The misty moon-lit non-thoughts, those profound things that make us each different and special, the view of the world turned upside down with snow falling?
This is the role of poetry, allowing us to be who we are, giving us the opportunity to be many of the things that we cannot imagine ourselves to be. Listening to a poem, hearing the sway and swing of the words, feeling them grip us is part of – and I use this word carefully – a magical process. Poetic language is living, full of sudden leaps and shadows and endless nuance. These things never truly follow a straight path. Poetry is like that. Daytime logic is cast aside for night-time dreams, poetic language lives on rhythmic clouds and speaks oh so loud to a listening mind.
Barefoot on the beach
scanning the offerings of last nights tide
gulls-shadowless still-flock before us
their sharp cries crack
barefoot on the beach
we follow those match-stick prints
it’s a gumdrop canvas already
bathers towels parasols
we stroll along light as froth
stepping over seashore secrets
snug in wet sand
laughter threads round us
swirls like candy floss
a pale shell catches my eye
it is spiralled orange and white
wind polished to a gleam
a miniature house of some long lost creature
a baby sea horse in my story
the empty shell so delicate
one of millions of sundry small things
washed in by chance
the scent of salt captures me
I float featureless
empty as a puff
the fullness of things blue
a puzzle swells
splits open like a clam sunning
how strange it is to spot this shell
not any other
to draw it and it alone into my universe
and what other things are there to catch my eye
flutter down my spine
dragged in by some restless
tide of my own
and might things random
be not random at all
that what I choose to scan rests
in some shadowy pool
some lost landscape of buried secrets
wedged tight behind my reflection
only to wash up
in the great fullness or emptiness
of some moment or other
A poem poses another way of looking at things. When a child hears or reads a poem they know and feel from the tip of their nose to the tips of their toes, that there IS another world out there. A special, wild, free world. A world where we can catch a shadow or slay a dragon or talk to a daffodil. It is our job, as adults in this arena, to make sure our children are well looked after, allowed and encouraged to dream, to have an active and vibrant relationship to poetry.
For those of us who are lucky enough to be involved with children and poetry writing, I take my hat off to you. This is one of the finest human experiences we can offer our kids.
To end, I hope my little snail has made it someplace wonderful by now and is dreaming his snail dreams. As for us? This wonderful passage from Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge sums it up perfectly:
Weave a circle around him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed
and drunk the milk of Paradise
The milk of paradise is none other than the wondrous self we can discover, not in some far away Xanadu, but inside ourselves. Inside the heart of every child. That is the heart and soul of why poetry is important.