Naturally, my first impulse has been to read up on the whole experience. So last week I checked out ‘101 Poems about Childhood’ from my local library.
While I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting – perhaps very visual, emotional poems on cute cuddily wuddilies, or a series of odes to the joy and love and poop that only parents can really ‘get’; the moment that I realised that this collection was edited by Michael Donaghy, I knew that I was going to be exposed to something very special, something that would both educate and challenge me.
In his introduction, Donaghy makes clear that he considers poetry and childhood to be ‘entwined on a deeper level’, pointing out that much of our language development takes place in part due to exposure of nursery rhymes and verse. Donaghy was looking for a specific slice of poetry –
Be advised: this is not a book of children’s poetry. Much of it is challenging and some of it bleak. There are dead children here, but it’s not a collection of elegies. And while I couldn’t resist some ecstatic observations of children by parents and poems of parental love, remorse and responsibility, its not really a book about parenthood either. Some great names are missing […]
I was most interested in poems about children’s minds. These seemed to fall into three categories; either a descriptive observation of a child by an adult spectator (Pinsky, Baille, Williams, Rilke), a rhetorical poem discoursing on that state of mind and the development of our language and emotions (see Graves, Burnside, Duffy) or a directly recalled or imaginary event dramatising the energy with which children encounter the world (see Bishop, Jarrell, Justice).
I’m not reading this in any sort of systematic way, or particularly following the chronological order. Rather I’m flicking until a phrase, an expression or an author catches my eye (or is it my imagination?) and so far have been stuck dumb by a couple. For almost every poem that I’ve read, I’ve thought of a person that I want to share it with or had a specific incident pop to mind, some event that felt the same way to me. Perhaps there truly are universal experiences – such as that described in the poem below:
The unjustly punished child
The child screams in his room. Rage
heats his head.
He is going through changes like metal under deep
pressure at high temperatures.
When he cools off and comes out of that door
He will not be the same child who ran in
and slammed it. An alloy has been added. Now he will
crack along different lines when tapped.
He is stronger. The long impurification
has begun this morning.
I read this one a few times, at first bemused then eventually a little concerned by the tiny kernel of pure livid anger that was hidden in my heart – the details have faded, but the emotion – perfectly described by Sharon Olds!
Another (new to me) poem that I just fell in love with is:
A Child Half-Asleep
Stealthily parting the small-hours silence,
a hardly-embodied figment of his brain
comes down to sit with me
as I work late.
Flat-footed, as though his legs and feet
were still asleep.
On a stool,
staring into the fire,
his dummy dangling.
Fire ignites the small coals of his eyes;
it stares back through the holes
into his head, into the darkness.
I ask what woke him.
“A wolf dreamed me,” he says.
This is a wonderful little book and I’m probably going to try and find a copy for my shelves. It goes back to the library on the 19th, worth looking up and taking out yourself! Not that my friends need to worry…I’ll be peppering their emails/facebook pages with specially selected poems for weeks to come! I can hear the collective Huzzah from here!!
Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of ‘the Judgement of Paris’
He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,
Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed.
About the Editor
Michael Donaghy was a New Yorker of Irish origins – if the name hadn’t made that obvious. Donaghy lived in London from the mid-80’s and immersed himself in both the poetry and folk scene. As a musician, he played the tin whistle, bodhran and flute and founded Samradh Music as well as performing in a variety of Irish music groups as well as a jazz/trad crossover band Lammas. He published his first poetry collection in 1988, which won the National Poetry Award. Donaghy achieved greater recognition and awards with each subsequent publication.
His work was at once melodic, playful and beautifully structured.
Donaghy commented “I owe everything I know about poetry to the public library system (in New York City) and not to my miseducation at university … I mean, the Bronx, who knows, now it may be full of cappuccino bars and bookshops, but back in those days it wasn’t. My parents would say something like ‘go out and play in the burning wreckage until dinnertime’ and I’d make a beeline for the library.”
His died in 2004 at only 50 years of age.