Poetry is my bag

Language Hat’s posting of a poem from the blog of the nine-year-old Julia Mayhew got me thinking about the role that strong parental support, and attention from adults generally, played in my own poetic career. It all started with the Christian Science Monitor’s annual contest for children’s poetry when I was seven years old: I got five dollars for a poem, five more for the accompanying picture, and best of all, my big brother DIDN’T WIN ANYTHING! I think it was the discovery of one thing my older brother didn’t excel at that really got me going, though the money was nice, too. The opening lines of my first poem, “The Elephant,” balanced understatement and redundancy:

The elephant, not all that hairy,
Stomps around on all four feet.

What’s great about poems by kids, of course, is how fresh, direct and kinetic the imagery can be. I was into my early teens, I think, before I started working more self-consciously on form and style. I remember one break-through poem that I wrote around the age of 14:

Tears on the plaster cheeks:
The ancient meditation mourned?
Uncross your legs, Buddha,
Come see the willow blossoms where they bloom.

– which is interesting too because it shows that even before I knew diddly about Buddhism or Daoism, I was already inclined in the latter direction.

I was working with an adult mentor, Jack McManis, by this point, so in retrospect I guess it’s not surprising that a bit of Jack’s strong emphasis on word music was already showing through. Later that same year, I closed a poem on transplanting cattail tubers with a stanza that pleased me not merely for its sound and imagery, but for the vatic tone – something I continue to strive for 25 years later:

I have seen a sea of cattail reeds
Rippling in the sun, rooted
In the wonderfully wet,
Whistling like the pipes of Pan
Over a broad water.

Of course, that was a good decade before the debut of the Internet, to say nothing of blogs. But my brothers and I did publish a zine of sorts, a natural history quarterly for which we had 35 subscribers, including some folks we didn’t even know. We were part of the Xerox revolution! That’s when I really learned how to write (and draw, and do calligraphy): my dad taught me the principles of good, clear prose composition in two hours. Given the kind of indifferent student I was in school, if I’d waited for my English teachers to teach me how to write, I doubt I ever would’ve learned.

So I’m all for kids writing blogs. One of the things that really impresses me about Julia Mayhew’s writing is the ease with which she assumes other personas. I don’t recall my own interest in dramatic monologue going nearly so far back. Of the poems currently on Mayhew’s index page, my favorite is this one:


I am a bag,filled with dirty
garments and when people
pick me up I feel like I am
going to split in half,little
people as big as me
stick their head in,yuck!
Their breath smells bad.
When big people come
they pull away little people
I think you call them bubies
or bibies or babies or
something like that,oh no!
I see bibies or babies in front
of me,Is there a nose plug?

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