Would you be a child again? For all its wonder, innocence, joy and freedom, childhood can also be full of insecurity, confusion and darkness. After all, it is a land of extremes where every feeling, no matter how transitory, is worn on the face.
Children cannot help expressing their authentic selves, regardless of the situation. We, the grown-ups (!), are the products of these mercurial formative years and – for better or worse – how we think, speak, act and write is informed by how we navigated the twisty paths of childhood. Sometimes, when tired, afraid or upset, that little person peeks out again through our adult eyes and reacts to a situation that might remind us of a childhood vulnerability. Often as adults we find ourselves, rather embarrassingly, acting like the children we once were in the company of our parents, for example. So how can we use this regression, the memories of our childhood and family, when writing poems? Does accessing these memories lead to more successful and authentic writing?
Many poets and writers mine their pasts, digging up memories and stories from their childhood narrative to create work that is meaningful and arresting. Others focus on the very subject of childhood itself. For my upcoming online course, I chose the title ‘The Zoo of the New’ after a line in the beautiful poem, ‘Child’ by Sylvia Plath:
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new
Whose names you meditate —
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical
Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.
This poem encapsulates perfectly the dichotomy we can encounter when writing about childhood – that childhood is supposed to be a magical time, full of ‘new’ and enriching experiences, but that frequently life doesn’t allow for this fantasy to exist uncontested. The reality is, of course, that ‘They fuck you up, your mom and dad’ as Philip Larkin attests in ‘This Be The Verse’ whether they intended to or not.
Now that we can accept we are, to some degree, ‘fucked up,’ where to? There are many wonderful poets and poems that can show us the way. During my course we’ll be using poems as springboards for our own creative explorations and revelations about our individual child and family experiences. Here is just a sample of poems that explore the subject to whet your appetite and get you thinking about your own journey through childhood – the light and the dark, the smooth and the rough: ‘Hymn to Childhood’ by Li-Young Lee, ‘Childhood’ by Margaret Walker, ‘In Childhood’ by Sarah A. Chavez, ‘When All The Others Were Away at Mass’ by Seamus Heaney and my two poems, ‘Lent’ and ‘Swing’.
Over the past number of years I have had the good fortune to partake in several poetry workshops with Billy Collins, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Share, Deryn Rees-Jones and Daljit Nagra, among others, many of which focused on early childhood moments. When writing about these memories a number of things occurred to convince me that reconsidering the past in this way was beneficial and enriching. Firstly, I cried, often and hard. In front of people I did not know. Don’t be put off by that! Reading poems about childhood and writing my own in response, unlocked something. This release was important because prior to it I was afraid, or certainly overly cautious, about being myself in my writing, of saying the thing. I rendered my poems opaque to protect their true meaning and to shield myself. This isn’t how poetry works – certainly not good poetry – and that initial unravelling allowed my writing to evolve.
As I wrote more and more about family and childhood I realised how confused and overwhelmed I was as a child, and how this informed not only my life but also my work. As I wrote through this and grew in confidence as a poet, I found myself working through many repressed memories – happy and sad – to find that I had reached a new level of insight and honesty in my work that I hope comes across to readers. I was finally saying the thing. Indeed, it was when this change took place that I began to place my poems in magazines and journals and when they started to win prizes.
It is an exhilarating and challenging journey. I do hope that you’ll join me in sensitively revisiting your childhood and family experiences through the brilliant work of a diverse group of poets, helpful prompts, and constructive feedback that will facilitate you in creating a new and enlivened body of work. The raw material is all there waiting for you. As Flannery O’Connor said, ‘Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.’ So, let’s dig deep and play!