Lately I have been enjoying dipping into Michael Donaghy’s delightful anthology 101 Poems about Childhood (Faber, 2005). His brief introduction is full of insight and provocation.
In one sense, all poetry is kids’ stuff. What makes us recognise a piece of writing as a poem is often a ‘technique’ whereby poets imitate children’s thinking.
…Perhaps poetry is our way of using the power of language against itself so that, however briefly, we see and feel the world afresh, with all the intensity of infancy.
…we expect wisdom from poets, as we expect it from philosophers and cosmologists. In fact, we expect them all to pose the very same questions children ask: What is is? Why is there anything? And why doesn’t it all happen at once? Like children’s art, children’s speculative thought shows a resourcefulness and curiosity missing from most adults.
The anthology is arranged chronologically and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end reading Alexander der Wilde’s poem from the 13th century When We Were Children. In David Ferry’s elegant translation, it is beguilingly fresh. I am fascinated by what people remember of the natural world from childhood, how those memories lay down a blueprint for our relationship with the earth and what grows and lives on it (including ourselves and others). There is often an aura of innocence, nostalgia, paradise lost. This poem, nearly eight centuries old, captures the sorrow of our fall into adulthood, its default, though illusory, certainty; all of us ‘left standing in the field’, ‘stripped naked’. A better fate perhaps than being shut inside the castle with the king? At least outside we have the chance to learn how to enjoy the art of toiling and spinning, asking and living our questions.
When We Were Children
I remember how, at that time, in this meadow,
We used to run up and down, playing our games,
Tag and games of that sort; and looked for wild flowers,
Violets and such. A long time ago.
Now there are only these cows, bothered by flies,
Only these cows, wandering about in the meadow.
I remember us sitting down in the field of flowers,
Surrounded by flowers, and playing she loves me not,
She loves me; plucking the flower petals.
My memory of childhood is full of those flowers,
Bright with the colors of garlands we wore in our dancing
And playing. So time went by among the wildflowers.
Look over there near those trees at the edge of the woods.
Right over there is where we used to find
Blueberry bushes, blackberry bushes, wild strawberries.
We had to climb over rocks and old walls to get them.
One day a man called out to us: ‘Children, go home.’
He had been watching from somewhere in the woods.
We used to feast on the berries we found in that place
Till our hands and mouths were stained with the colors of all
The berries, the blackberries, strawberries, and the blueberries.
It was all fun to us, in the days of our childhood.
One day a man called out, in a doleful voice:
‘Go home, children, go home, there are snakes in that place.’
One day one of the children went into the grass
That grows high near the woods, among the bushes.
We heard him scream and cry out. He came back weeping.
‘Our little horse is lying down and bleeding.
Our pony is lying down. Our pony is dying.
I saw a snake go crawling off in the grass.’
Children, go home, before it gets too dark.
If you don’t go home before the light has gone,
If you don’t get home before the night has come,
Listen to me, you will be lost in the dark,
Listen to me, your joy will turn into sorrow.
Children, go home, before it gets to be dark.
There were five virgins lingered in the field.
The king went in with his bride and shut the doors.
The palace doors were shut against the virgins.
The virgins wept left standing in the field.
The servants came and stripped the virgins naked.
The virgins wept, stripped naked, in the field.
Alexander Der Wilde
Translated from the German by David Ferry
(from Dwelling Places, University of Chicago Press, 1993)
N.B. The poem is divided into six-line stanzas but the formatting has eluded me here.