Mole Valley Poets, 25th January 2010
Diana Webb: Poetry and Childhood

Diana began the evening with a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke in which childhood is seen as a treasure house of memories from which poems may arise. Seamus Heaney considers that writers come close to the centre of the mystery they are to themselves when they talk about their childhoods. In a passage from Kathleen Raine, her inspirer is not the feminine figure of the muse but the Eternal Child, an unageing prescence. Basho considered that one should let a small child compose haiku and that the verse of a beginner is most promising. Matthew Arnold thought that the love of nature in a child could grow and strengthen with age and disagreed with William Wordsworth who thought this delight died away.

Being in tune with created presence and the sense of imagination and immediacy which we associate with childhood can be an important part of writing in later life.

Extracts from William Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality show clearly how Wordsworth sees childhood as a lost paradise. He says every common sight / to me did seem / apparelled in celestial light and The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The introduction to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience is written in a very accessible style. No words are more than two syllables long. The piper sees a child on a cloud who asks for a song about a Lamb to be played on the pipe and then to be sung and then Piper sit thee down and write / In a book that all may read.

The style of writing brings to mind Nursery Rhymes, lullabies and playground Skipping Rhymes. There is clarity and a strong rhythmic pattern.

Thomas Traherne's Wonder has a vivid and immediate freshness How like an angel came I down ! / How bright are all things here! This description of the beginning of his life continues with glorious sights and colours The streets were paved with golden stones and Rare splendours - yellow, blue, red, white and green, / Mine eyes did everywhere behold.

A E Houseman considers that childhood is lost to him What are those blue remembered hills he asks and then That is the land of lost content.

Kathleen Raine refers to William Wordsworth's forgetting of childhood in her poem Karma and puts the opposite point of view but the wise say / We come in merciful forgetfulness / Of what we are in order that we can live anew and learn / To give and to receive / The sacrament of love. And in a poem which refers to Plotinus the world we see, we are: a child sees Her bright self-image in a glass, / Tree, leaf and flower, / Sun, moon and farthest star.

Frank O'Hara in Autobiographia Literaria shows childhood as a time of loneliness when he hated games, / animals were / not friendly and birds / flew away and yet here he is now the centre of all beauty! / writing these poems !

Diana introduced further poems: Childhood by John Burnside with the evocative mix of pockets full of chalk, / beech-mast and feathers ending with a slant of light, / the mystery of being. From a childhood by Rainer Maria Rilke, Piano by D H Lawrence both describe a mother playing the piano and a child's response. In The Long Grass of Childhood by Paul Matthews We had grandmothers then. and a description of fields and flowers ends with the question Who am I / in this field so vast no / grandmother could ever find me. In Frederick Morgan's I Remember the Sea when I was six... the hot sand and the red tin pail are part of a vivid description of a sandy beach which is now sensed only in dreams.

Childhood wonder can be evoked by illustrations for children's books. The Charles Causley poem What has happened to Lulu? is beautifully illustrated with a pen and ink line drawing of a sorrowing mother. The poem tells of the bewildered child who asks about Lulu and is never given a direct answer. The child knows of the emotional import of what has happened and is being denied the chance to put the event into words.

In John Hegley's Auntie and Uncle the child is given two different responses to his colouring in of pictures and drawing of designs. The child is accused by his aunt of being a rebel and then told by his uncle that all his drawings are good - He is lying, / only some of them are.

Roald Dahl gives the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf a wonderful new lease of life when Little Red Riding Hood turns out to be more than a match for the Wolf.

R L Stevenson's The Swing reminds us of those straightforward joys of childhood.

Diana shared with us haiku and tanka which had been written by children and were full of vitality and insight.

Diana then invited us to write for a few moments on the theme of Nature or Snow using words of only one syllable. This was an inspiring exercise and the sharing of the results was an enjoyable end to the session.