Down the rivers of the windfall light: poems about childhood

Three boys playing outside St Anthony's Hall on Aldwark in the 1940s, published by J.B. Morrell in his book The Woodwork of York. Photograph: Imagine York
4 Jun 2013 @ 9.32 am
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Three boys playing outside St Anthony's Hall on Aldwark in the 1940s, published by J.B. Morrell in his book The Woodwork of York. Photograph: Imagine York
Three boys playing outside St Anthony’s Hall on Aldwark in the 1940s, published by JB Morrell in his book The Woodwork of York. Photograph: York Images
YorkMixOur strongest memories are forged when growing up – but can you turn them into vivid images on the page? Poet In Residence Carole Bromley has some pointers

Childhood’s a very rich seam to mine. After all, we all had one. Childhood, according to Rilke, was one of poetry’s two inexhaustible sources. The older you get the less likely it is you can remember names or even what you had for breakfast but you never forget the day your sister pinched you in the pram or the colour of your first party frock or the time your dad took you on the Big Dipper.

Talking of forgetting things, I wanted to track down my copy of 101 Poems About Childhood, edited by Michael Donaghy so I could give you some examples but could I find it? Had to buy another one. Worth it anyway as rereading them was such a pleasure.

Nothing much on the telly this week worth watching so sitting on the sofa with a pile of poetry books was very appealing. I must admit I watched The Eurovision Song Contest and haven’t had such a good laugh in weeks. It’s what Twitter is made for. Also secretly hooked on The Apprentice, though very disappointed the women are doing so badly. They all look so perfect I can’t imagine how they get ready in thirty minutes. And I have a horrible feeling Alex might win. Frightening.

So, having read my way through poems about childhood from Homer to Kate Clanchy, I now have to come up with tips on different ways to approach the subject in your poems.

The simplest way, of course, is to delve into your own bank of memories and choose a particularly vivid one. You could start by revisiting old photo albums, going back to old haunts, picking up an object in your gran’s house.

You could go to the Castle Museum and look at all the sweets of your childhood in jars in a shop window in Kirkgate, all your old toys behind glass. Or you could simply get your pen out and start jotting down details of a particular place from your childhood: things you can see, hear, smell, touch, taste. That’s always the best approach.

The idea is to bounce that memory off the page and into the reader’s mind so that you take them there and they experience the place and/or the emotions associated with it. That (on a good day) you can actually pull off this amazing trick just with words on a page is one of the great delights of writing.

For a few examples, try DH Lawrence ‘weeping like a child for the past’ in Piano, Dylan Thomas ‘young and easy under the apple bows’ in Fern Hill, or Theodore Roethke ‘the wind billowing out the seat of his britches’ in Child On Top Of A Greenhouse.

Here’s one of mine just to show you what a horrid child I was:


You pinched me in the pram
when I was too young to tell,
left bruises on my arm

but I bathed your Queenie doll
and rusted her voice box
so she couldn’t say mama.

Kids are not perfect. They’re anarchic and fascinating. Ask any teacher which kids stick in their minds and they’ll probably tell you it’s the naughty ones. They drive you nuts but it can be hard to keep your face straight. Write about something really bad you got up to when you were a kid. I don’t want to hear about the Friday you got the Merit badge.

A special memory for one young man: checking out the chocolate mice at York Castle Museum. Photograph: York Museums Trust
A special memory for one young man: checking out the chocolate mice at York Castle Museum. Photograph: York Museums Trust

Of course you may be less interested in writing about your own childhood and more interested in writing about your children or your grandchildren. If you do this you need to watch you don’t fall into the sentimentality trap.

Again the best way is to observe and write truthfully. Don’t idealise. Avoid abstract nouns. We need to experience the event you’re describing with you so give us real detail, the things we can see and hear, real snippets of speech to convince the reader.

For the best poems about birth and small babies try Kate Clanchy’s lovely book Newborn or her anthology All The Poems You Need To Say Hello, or go back to Sharon Olds who writes beautifully and honestly about this subject, or, of course, Sylvia Plath’s tender poems about her children.

Here’s Plath stumbling out of bed to breast feed in Morning Song. Such wonderful images: ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, ‘All night your moth-breath / Flickers among the flat pink roses’, ‘the clear vowels rise like balloons’.

And here’s Olds in Her First Week. ‘She was so small I would scan the crib a half second / to find her face down in a corner’.

Very hard to get it right but why not have a try?

A child’s first words can form the basis of lovely poems. Not just because of the wonder of them but because they let us into the secret of language itself. They give us an insight into how the mind works and what can be more fascinating or moving than that?

Write about your child (or your grandchild)’s first utterances and don’t let anyone tell you the resulting poem is sentimental. Make sure you set the scene using the senses and just let the words speak for themselves. Here’s Ted Hughes in Full Moon And Little Frieda:

‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

I may have quoted that one in an earlier blog. I told you I was getting forgetful. Just for the record I had porridge and orange juice.

Send me a childhood poem. I’ll look forward to reading them and will publish the best and comment on them here in June. And, if you’ve got my copy of 101 Poems About Childhood, don’t worry. Just keep it. I’ve got another one.

Here’s one of my favourites from it, a Robert Browning poem which was new to me:

Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of ‘The Judgement of Paris’

He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,
Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed.

Go on. Amaze me.

Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.