Sunday, July 25, 2010

On Childhood: Before the "Dark Hour of Reason"

"Childhood," said English poet John Betjeman, "is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows." Indeed, poems about childhood seem colored by innocence and naiveté, memories that make the rooms of a house more grand, the shadows near the bed at night more horrifying. In these works, poets document remembered people, places, and pastimes with an attention that children have for the world before ritual and maturity strips life of its daily magic.

In "A Replica of the Parthenon," for example, Mark Doty recounts a game he and a neighbor girl played without understanding the profound meaning of what they were doing:

Every night we took turns dying.
One would lie down while the other
folded the corpse's hands and,
with the true solemnity of children,
brought flowers.

In "A Happy Childhood," William Matthews captures another aspect of one’s early years: that not all memories are true. "It turns out you are the story of your childhood," Matthews wrote, "and you're under constant revision." In the poem, Matthews tries to reveal the contradictions that arise when one tries to remember the details of a far-off time:

He'll remember like a prayer
how his mother made breakfast for him
every morning before he trudged out
to snip the papers free. Just as
his mother will remember she felt
guilty never to wake up with him
to give him breakfast. It was Cream
of Wheat they always or never had together.

Sometimes a poet writes of childhood as a time of happiness, or sometimes as an uncomfortable period in which the child cannot yet live side-by-side with adults, as in James Merrill’s "The World and the Child," which describes the sweet pain of a child who lies in bed, separated from the adults, longing to be loved:

He lies awake in pain, he does not move,
He will not scream. Any who heard him scream
Would let their wisdom be the whole of love.

People have filled the room he lies above.
Their talk, mild variation, chilling theme,
Falls on the child...

And finally, of course, poems about childhood can be just plain fun. Take, for example, the springtime world E.E. Cummings creates in the poem "In Just," full of hop-scotch and jump-rope and rain, all "mud-luscious" and "puddle-wonderful." Or the Lewis Carroll poem "Jabberwocky," which begins

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

From here.

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