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The Childish Nature of Poetry

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"How can my mind not be frightened not only of the world, but also of itself, this child's mind which inflicts the imperfect world on itself." - C.K. Williams

This Winter's edition of The Poetry Review contains a transcript of a lecture called 'On Being Old' by the American poet, C.K. Williams. The lecture meanders around mortality and the worth of a life spent on poetry before arriving on something that has always fascinated me about writing - its childishness.

Williams writes of himself that 'the older I am, the more I've become aware of how trapped I am in a mind that in its perceptions, its impulses, its emotions, is very much still a child's.'

When we compare the traits of a child-mind and the nature of poetry, there are many parallels. As Ken Robinson is eager to tell us at every opportunity, almost all children are born with the power of lateral thinking and a capacity for creativity.

Then, as Robinson's argument seems to follow, education crushes all that beautiful imagination out of us leaving society with droves of robotic office-drones with a few autistic/artistic types on the periphery to release the occasional book and squabble about Arts Council funding.

So why is a child's mind so inherently poetic? A good portion of it comes from the fact that children are at a linguistic disadvantage to their elders and will often brilliantly bridge the gap in a creative fashion.

It is not unusual for me to mark pieces of creative writing by my younger students with phrases such as 'the sky made waterness on the floor'. It is what linguists refer to as a 'virtuous error' - a piece of non-standard language with a clear chain of logic behind it.

Whilst the arbitrary rules of our language make such phrases technically 'wrong', they are a clear example of the sort of inventive perseverance and lexical lego-building that lead Shakespeare to coin words like 'admirable' and 'quarrelsome'. It is the same processes that lead Ted Hughes to the line 'that silver is snail-saliva silveriness' and Frances Leviston to the word 'unputbackable'.

With this predilection for pushing the rules of grammar and conjugation to their limits, poets and children also share certain semantic behaviours in their descriptions.

If I were to place a cat in front of you now and ask you to describe it, you would tell me any distinguishing features that set it aside from the hundreds and thousands of other cats that you have seen in your life. This is no fault in your part - simply a sign that we have trained ourselves to give little attention to 'everyday' things to keep our minds prepared for those things that we cannot predict.

But if I were to place a cat in front of a child who had never seen one before and asked them to describe it - then what would we hear? A comparison with other animals or objects that share a similar colour or shape? 'A goldfish-coloured dog with a tennis-ball head' perhaps? Or some description of the cat's movement? Or simply an awe-struck emotional reaction at this alien creature that now confronts the child?

The word 'alien' is important here, as it is exactly this which Craig Raine achieved with his most popular poem, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home and the whole Martianism movement that goes along with it. The child's necessary viewing of the world without the semantic conventions that culture brings is a state of mind that many poets strive for and is visible in images such as Lachlan MacKinnon's:

'The moon is a wild wind the staunch trees
cannot withstand.
They curl in, defeated, like waves.
They are the moon's slaves.
They shine back at her all night with dumb love.'
(from Youth)

and Jacob Polley's description of a jar of honey:

'it's the sun, all flesh and no bones
but for the floating knuckle
of honeycomb'.

At the heart of this is the poet's childish need for playfulness, even in the most serious of situations. Just as nursery rhymes, limericks and alliterative nicknames gave us pleasure as children, it is the poets' desire to play games that leads to so much sonneteering, haikuery and, for those who are feeling more inventive, the OuLiPo's build-your-own-word-game approach to writing.

A fine blend of poetic rigour and childish playfulness can be seen in Jon Stone's Treasure Arcade, an excellent experiment in form and meditation on computer games, and Ross Sutherland's excellent documentary about the process of writing poems using online translators.

Clearly there is more to creative writing than regressing into childhood - the oeuvre of C.K. Williams would be incredibly boring if that was the case. But the challenge of a poet will always be to unlearn the laziness and self-consciousness that brings us bland thoughts. Just as a child can only see the topography of an open space as a series of climbing frames and running tracks whilst us civilised souls keep our shoes clean on the footpath, it is up to the poet to capture something of both worlds.

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