When I saw my son, Daniel, shaking our new lilac bush the spring he was three, I managed to keep myself from shrieking, “Stop it, you’re going to kill the bush!” Instead I asked him what he was doing. “I’m stirring the sky, Mama,” he told me. I asked only that he stir it gently. How can you tell a child to stop stirring the sky?
For years I recorded my children’s words in my journal. This helped me listen and ask my kids questions rather than simply tell them to stop. It also helped me see how close we are to the source of poetry when we just begin to talk. My daughter, Elisabeth, called a tunnel in the park wormtight. She made up the word slumming for the way snails move. More recently she coined ruggling for wrestle/snuggling. One day, digging with what he called “the too sharp knife,” my son explained, “I’m fountaining dirt.”
Listening to my children has kept me from always being a know-it-all. Mothers love to make pronouncements. When Daniel asked me what was the darkest color, I knowingly answered, “Black.” He thought about this for a minute, certain it couldn’t be so simple. Then he said, “A hundred times purple is darker than black.”
Children naturally see and express things in a fresh way before we teach them the “right” way. When my children were little they said things like “I have hands,” amazed by the discovery. They were filled with questions, “What would happen if the moon burned?” or, “Can a fire burn a fire?” or, “Do bees pee?” or, “Are plants afraid of scissors?” and, “Do roots have minds?”
Poetry can bring me to the child-place where I begin to ask this kind of question, where I begin to discover the world all over again. Hanging out with children helps. Poet Kenneth Patchen wrote that a poet should “wear comfortable shoes and see a lot of children.” Poet Francisco X. Alarcon writes,
makes us see
for the first time.
This is what listening to children can do.
When my son, Daniel, was three or four he had an argument on the telephone with his friend Per. I jotted down what I caught of his end of the conversation, and now he gets royalties (two dollars) whenever I read it as a “found poem” in my workshops.
Bye bye anything I’ve ever seen computer
bye bye you dirty ball point banana
Bye bye poison fly
bye bye flea of soda pop
Oh you plum,
you fly in a spider’s web,
This is making me mad, mad, mad!
Why did you say shhhh?
Want a kiss?
Did you hear it?
Seek out children. Jot down what they say.
We can find poems just by listening, being a scribe and catching the words.
“Stirring the Sky” is a chapter reprinted from poemcrazy: freeing your life with words. Used by permission of Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge.
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