A LITTLE POETRY BIOGRAPHY
ABOUT KIDS AND POETRY
I have slowly been getting better acquainted with a few of my selves, my poetry self among them. It takes awhile.
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 my instincts and desires were not very different from those of any other child.
Like everyone else I loved to play and to make things up. Imagination was the obvious currency. Music, dance, and words of all varieties, for various reasons, took a big hold on me. Later, when I was around ten, I remember sitting on my parents’ front porch and reading THE WORLD’S BEST LOVED POEMS over and over. I memorised a lot of pieces in that book, including The Gettysburg Address, Sir Walter Scott, Longfellow, without fully understanding what these poems were about. I think I did it just for the pleasure of saying them out loud. And memorising them was fun; I could repeat these words over and over whenever I felt like it.
I don’t really think this was unusual. Most of my friends followed the same path. We found ourselves in a dynamic world where words, lyrics, rhymes and tunes were around us and stimulated us to the core. We sang, danced, made up plays and learned lyrics. These were powerful influences.
( Playing flute in the Margaret Mace School Marching Band in North Wildwood, NJ. Picture taken by my father)
As an adult I came to understand that imagination, and in particular having fun with words, somehow led me to poetry and its trusty companion, metaphor. It became clear that the sheer joy of playing with language is as natural to children, and indeed all humans, as breathing.
Imagine a primitive culture. Native Americans, for example, had only oral languages and lived in direct and intimate contact with nature, in a society in which plants, trees, animals, water, rocks and cosmic entities were daily companions. It would have been natural to reach out, talk to, placate, celebrate and relate to those forces in a personal way.
Now imagine someone from the tribe walking on the savannah. She looks at the grasses blowing lightly in the distance. She turns to her partner: ‘Look. The feather grass is brushing the sky.’ Has she written the world’s first poem? Has she created the world’s first metaphor? Or perhaps the partner turns back and replies: ‘No, the spear grass is slapping the sky.’
I think the primary way we see the world is poetic. We are born alone into a vast profusion of life, a world rich in colour, shape, music and sound whose patterns are always changing. A world at first incomprehensible.
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, from the first days when hominoids walked the planet, has been one of assimilation and pattern processing. This route, making imaginative and creative order out of chaos, with play at its core, is an intrinsically artistic process.
So when our Indian sees the grass and compares it to a feather brushing the mountain, she makes a poetic leap. By doing so, she is asserting her creativity and individuality. Her friend, who compares the grass to a spear which is slapping the sky, engages in the same process. In the end, it’s never just a question of WHAT the world is out there, but WHO AM I in relation to the world out there.
These Native Americans have synthesised their understandings of two elements, grass and sky, and have created two different interpretations, both based on familiar elements and both re-ordered to different effects. She and her partner have dipped their toes into the creative process and, in so doing, hitched their wagons to the stars.
Unfortunately this different way of seeing things, this synthesis of ideas (a and b equals not c but say…x, w or z) is one which diminishes and fades as we grow up in contemporary society. Not only are we not in a close relationship to nature, but education directs us towards empirical learning and to structures where creativity, imagination and artistic synthesis play an often reduced role.
But the artist, like the child, cannot help but respond to a different set of imperatives. Her impulse is to make things up, create illusions, offer alternatives.
Our relationship with the world around us, the natural world, has become a lonely distant cousin compared to the energy and sense of brotherhood with nature our species must have felt all those thousands of years ago.
The fact is every child plays and therefore has within them the ability to synthesise and make things up. No matter what the era, the circumstances or place. Imagination is our birthright.
In my case, I think I somehow escaped being bound by traditional thinking. That freedom enabled me to translate my childhood love of words into the skills needed to create grown-up gatherings of words, some of which were destined to emerge as poems.
Because making things up was encouraged when I was small, gradually it became the signature that guided my life. Indeed, it has been the ever present banner, the particular inner tune which I have learned to accompany with words. Words which, through the art of poetry, transform reality from one thing to another.