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February 21, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Child As Poet – 1

The author, future child poet

The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality? is a 1984 polemic by Myra Cohn Livingston, a distinguished children’s poet who found a lot not to like in the Poets in the Schools movement. Myra came out swinging at what she saw as a myth promulgated by Teachers & Writers Collaborative and Kenneth Koch in New York City, and followed blindly by folks teaching writing to young people all over the country: that children are natural poets, and all a teacher needs to do is release the spontaneity of their uncorrupted use of language.

Myra Cohn Livingston (1926-1996)

Myra, threatened by T&W putdowns of rhyming children’s poems like hers, lays about her tooth and claw, pointing out the romantic fallacy behind our zealous faith in some uncorrupted childhood Word, but her arguments are still worth reading: she catches instances of plagiarism that go unnoticed band even published ny credulious enthusiastic poet-teachers and awful writing uncritically extolled, and she further unearths the exemplary curriculum of a poet in residence at the Lab School in Chicago in 1949, a fellow named Langston Hughes. Myra used me (she liked cute young me) as a west-coast counterweight to swing against Teachers and Writers: In some instances there has been growth, none so striking as that of John Oliver Simon in California, who has moved from a belief in the quick assignment, the instant product, to establish instead a program with a care for process.

I’ve had the good fortune of staying employed, mostly, across four decades of professional life as a poet-teacher, a teacher of poetry to children, first with California Poets In The Schools, and then adding the next piece — translation — these last ten years with Poetry Inside Out. As deeply grounded as I have become in the theory and practice of poetry in the K-12 classroom, there is much about the roots of poetry in childhood that remains mysterious, and certainly difficult to assess.

Perhaps the question requires self-discovery. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.There is no child poet I have better access to than myself, and my descendants in the two following generations. I’ll delve into personal history to seek my own child poet. I want to look at this stuff with Myra’s questions in mind. If poetry is not innate, where does it come from? Maybe poetry is a kind of viral meme, ubiquitous in every culture, but requiring transmission.

A fifteen-year-old schoolboy named Neftalí Reyes had a visiting poet as a master teacher in his classroom in Temuco, in the reiany south of Chile, in the winter of 1919. Born Lucila Godoy in the metallic Andean valleys farther north, and  already nationally famous for her Sonetos a la muerte, she called herself by a pseudonym: Gabriela Mistral. Young Neftalí caught fire from Gabriela and began writing sweeping romantic verses. When he brought them home and tried to fread them, his father, a practical man, a railroad conductor, tossed them in the fire. No son of his was going to waste time on such fanfanerría, airy-fairy nonsense! His maestra Gabriela told the lad, “You are a true poet. It would be a shame if you did not keep on writing.”

Neftalí Reyes: to publish or not to publish?

Soon friends in the capital, Santiago, wrote to Neftalí that they were planning to start a zine and they wanted to publish his poems. Great news! but… my dad is going to kill me! what to do…? The idea of taking pseudonym was close to hand with his mentor; perhaps you have heard of Neftali under the name he chose: Pablo Neruda.

Where did Gabriela get the flame of poetry she passed to Neftalí? Trace the transmission back to Homer, hymns to Iyanna incised on clay tablets, the walls of the cave at Lascaux, not long after our foreparents began talking in complete sentences.

There is nob record of any portentous childhood babblings on my part, at least none werre ever written down, but as EXHIBIT A here’s a fifth-grade poem from 1953 to which I own the rights. I still have the notebook (SQUARE DEAL COMPOSITION, a little moldly but evidently the paper was acid-free, it has stood the test of more than half a century on my shelves) from fifth grade, 1953 , Downtown Community School, a progressive private school attended by children of Communisists:

*

AUTUMN

*

The leaves, red, yellow and gold

fall on the slightest

breeze in the fall

After a summer of sitting on a tree

down they go for a winter’s sleep

but in the spring

here they are again

waiting for the fall to come

rushing down the glen

John Oliver Simon

November, 1952

*

This primeval effusion owes a lot to the woods around  Bernard Simon’s cabin in Bantam, Connecticut, where I spent my happiest times as  a child.  (This is lovely! wrote my classroom teacher, Ms. Oppenheimer, after correcting my capitalizations in BOLD, and fou! fou fou! andded a French teacher is my one kid poem. I was happy with the rhyme of again – glen, and also the rollicking 3-4-3 rhythm of the last three lines, which I thought conveyed the rushing of the seasons. I think I got some nice strokes for the poem.  The poetic rush might have planted a seed but  it didn’t really take, maybe because we didn’t have a consistent, sequential poetry curriculum (which not coincidentally has become my life’s work). I didn’t write another poem for four years.

A few pages later in the SQUARE DEAL notebook I’ve carried nealy sixty years, I wrote despairingly, SAVE THE ROSENBERGS! * WRITE NOW! I was a bright, temperamental nerdy kid in the fiufth grade at Downtown, taught by bright young leftists who would be pushing ninety now, and attended by red-diaper babies, now gray, the children of Communists. Shortly, in March 1953, the month of Stalin’s death,  I would be traumatically transferred, on the occasion of my mom’s resented but highly fortunate second marriage, to a public school in the suburbs, to become the lowest of the low at Bedford Junior High.

I was the weird new kid with pinko opinions who can’t hit a fastball and doesn’t do his homework and always talks in questions, like he was smarter than you, which makes you want to put him in a headlock, kick him in the ass, pick on him, he’s a victim, bad days of  age 13-15, in retro, whose weren’t. Alienation, petty vandalism, minor gang adventure, cigarettes secretly in flammable places, Thank God there were no drugs yet. In retrospect, the virus of poetry was transmitted to me somewhat out of the blue. A Yale classmate of my stepfather’s, maybe 48 in 1956, probably gay, entirely appropriate, certainly drying out, took refuge at our house in Westport, Connectiocut and stayed for some days, asked me to read him Catullus, in Latin. “No, go on, you read very well.”

*

Dianae sumus in fide

Puellae et pueri integri:

Dianam pueri integri

Puellaeque canamus.

*

It amazed me that we would still be reading this poem after two thousand years. John Adler, my stepfather, was also a great lover of poetry, and always encouraged me in my afterward vocation (though my ostensible dad, Bunny Simon, hated the stuff). John Adler would recite Ulysses from memory: ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

My first real poem, age 14, fall 1956,  Suez Crisis,  presidential election (teacher Jay Van Zandt had  us divide an aisle between us six Democrats — the brightest kids in the room — and the twenty-two Republicans, and debate Eisenhower-Stevenson: we kicked their ass… I wrote this my first real poem on the full moon night of Hallowe’en, October 31, 1956, age 14 vyears, 7 months, 10 days.

*

LUNATIC NIGHT

*

Lunatic night, the moon pale silver

And the earth below a moonlit skeleton,

Carved white marble, shaken by starwinds.

Nocturnal things, flecked with silvefr, hurrying,

Moving under the pale god of the night

Pale god as dead as the cold stars.

Eye of the night, gazing

With a cold brilliance at

A horde of scurrying ghost-things,

Vampires of the blood of the day earth,

Gnawing the bones of the night earth,

Clean earth now touched by the rotten feet

Of decayed light.

*

Coming the dawn, as awakening from a nightmare,

Coming the orange sun, and the end of sleep

Passing the moon, a pale small flag, out of the wehst

And the cold ghost horde flees

Back to their homes in the minds of men.

*

What a rush it was to be able to write like that! Now I will have 55 years of being a full-time poet (what’s your day job?) come October. Gold watches accepted and pawned.

At the Putney School, a prestigious progressive coeducational boarding school on a hilltop in Vermont, where I was more or less sent to my redemption or else and learned strength through joy of hovelling cow’s behinds, I walked nervously with a typed sheaf into the many-aquariumed office of my English teacher, Jeffrey Campbell, an African American Unitarian Universalist preacher, Conscientious Objector and erstwhile union organizer in Welsh coal mines, and sat there in eternity’s wind while Jeff took his time over my pages. His pipe-smoke rose in sunlight past where his many-colored fishes swam. After awhile Jeff turned to me, and said in his inimitable accent, one part church Negro, one part Olde English, and two parts Wixard of Oz, “that’s poetry.”

At Putney, amazingly for the years 1958-60,, it was cool with the girls, many of them artists and champions of one kind or another themselves, if a guy were a poet, almost as cool as a violinist, though not nearly so great as as a Junior Nationals skier. I wrote a lot of poems, and my Putney diploma, hand water-colored by I suspect Wendy Watson, has a guy wreathed with laurel reciting. Here’s part of a long poem I wrote at the spring of my senior year, dedicated to one of a series of very fine young women I never treated right:

*

Dear Sally

morning is bright haired again

a dancer in a morning’s wood, the sun

awkens naked, dripping, early mist

comes off his running back.

Bells, bells of the morning break leaves! touched,

the distanct, soft-fleshed hills reply, ringing

with color;

the spring’s young dancers riot in the woods…

Later in this long poem (based, like half a century’s work to follow, on variations of iambic pentameter impatted to be by both John Adler and Jeff Campbell) I look back half my lifetime on what then seems so distant, my own childhood, my grandparents’ backyard on Jordan Avenue in San Francisco, where I stayed in the summer of 1951 while my parents were slugging it out Back East toward separation:

*

A nine-year’s sumnmer when I courted birds

and learned their names, to forget them again

in the white backyard of my grandmother’s house,

and light waded down through leaves

and seas of leaves

to dew my eyes:

then I danced in the company of suns

and drowned and aviary months

or would have danced, if in courting time

I’d known that what my feet moved was dancing:

then it was I mind civered with apple blossoms,

a page in the dew-wet company of treesm

singing in tune with the nimble-fingered grass;

then it was I who sand in nested trees

and made the passersby look up,

regretting distance and all-flowering timne

*

This year quite twice as aged it is I

who look, and cannot place the whistler;

summer has entered strongly in my bones.

*

Next time I’ll follow the poetry meme down two generations.

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