“Because they grow up / and forget what they know”: On the Strange Wisdom of Children’s Poetry

By Eric Redfern

      A small speckled visitor  
              wearing crimson cape,
      brighter than a cherry,
              smaller than a grape.

      A polka-dotted someone
            walking on my wall,
      a black-hooded lady
            in a scarlet shawl.

At five years old, I experienced this Joan Walsh Anglund poem as both charming and creepy. The lilting trochees and cheery rhyme scheme told me that to read the poem was to play a friendly game. But the red cape and black hood? These are the sartorial choices of a villain. A villain, not the villain: there were more of them, and by the fifth line my world would blur at its edges, where tiny, spotted, unidentified “someones” almost palpably teemed. Most troubling and fascinating of all, I could not determine if this “lady” was a bug or a woman, small or tall, dangerous or safe. Anthologies have resolved this ambiguity for their readers by titling the poem “Ladybug,” much as Mabel Loomis Todd domesticated Dickinson’s poems with ordinary titles like “The Bee” or “The Humming-Bird.” But in the illustrated book I had, Anglund’s poems were untitled, and the ambiguity strikes me now as appropriate: ladybugs are “good” garden denizens; most are also carnivorous. Reading about the poem’s “speckled visitor,” my mind made something like a 3-D hologram portrait that morphs into a specter as it’s tilted first one way, then another. Haunting each other, both images stayed strange.

When he sifted the Poetry Foundation’s basement holdings, making selections for his children’s poetry portfolio, Lemony Snicket adhered to his own standard of strangeness, “because all great literature is strange, the way all good slides are slippery.” In this sentiment he echoes Theodore Roethke, author of “Dirty Dinky” and poster child for the uncanny lyric, who mused in his notebook, “Never be afraid of the strange.” Not coincidentally, the New Oxford American Dictionary gives as its sample usage for the word strange, “children have some strange ideas.” It is impossible to observe children’s efforts to manipulate a system of language and, with it, a sense of our shared reality, and not be newly estranged from that reality, re-seeing it as a construction rather than what just is. Children’s poetry reminds us that we only have to step out of a frame of everyday reference to be surprised, unsettled, or thrilled. Consider the following poem, “A Wee Little Worm,” by James Whitcomb Riley:

A wee little worm in a hickory-nut
Sang, happy as he could be,
‘Oh I live in the heart of the whole round world,
And it all belongs to me!’

Here we get the joy of the connected self, at home in its voice and in a world that is cozy and custom-sized. At the same time, if the worm thinks his nut is the world, a child reader saying this poem aloud might realize that the world, my world, is only a world, and perhaps small as a nut to some other being reading some other poem in some other existence. Under the sway of these vast shifts in perspective, readers are asked to reconsider the texture and scope of reality itself.

And here’s one from Hughes Mearns, “The Little Man,” as it appears in Jack Prelutsky’s The Random House Book of Poetry for Children:

As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there;
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d stay away.

As in Anglund’s poem, uncertainty of scale breaks down categories. The homunculus on the stairs is both small and grown-up, and this indeterminacy is as unnerving as his not-there thereness. In addition, his present absence is phenomenal to the child speaker, and it replicates a particular kind of early experience that falls between the tangible and intangible, the real and imagined. In its quick four lines, the poem gets at what it means to perceive a threat that might not be there; hints at the feeling of inexplicable loss and grief; and even suggests that the speaker has a pervasive sensitivity or sixth sense. While an adult sensibility may find the poem nonsensical or silly, a child who regularly consults with an imaginary friend or takes running leaps onto the bed at night to avoid the monsters underneath will take the man-who’s-not-there in stride and use the poem as it should be used, to ponder the nature of what we can sense without sensing, and know without knowing.

While some children’s poems make the familiar strange, and some make the strange familiar, I am especially drawn to the in-between poems, like Anglund’s, Riley’s, and Mearns’, that work both ways. This flexible quality often marks poems not originally intended for child readers but regularly co-opted by children’s anthologies, like the tenth poem in e. e. cummings’ 95 poems:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lost(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

Here we see the breakdown of categories like music/noise, human/animal, danger/fun, and, in the fifth stanza, big/small. Like the wee little worm’s nut, may’s stone is a world unto itself, but also a hermetic solitude—like a person, or a poem, in which we lose and find ourselves. Where better than a poem, really, to think about how we are befuddlingly and wondrously singular and collective, solitary and connected, embodied and more-than-bodied? In many children’s poems—here, in Delmore Schwartz’s “I Am Cherry Alive”—this flexibility is amplified and expressed creatively, in the form of a song:

‘I am cherry alive,’ the little girl sang,
‘Each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
as the boys who made the Hallowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
When I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
Someone very old, like a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
And I want to be everything sometimes too:
And the peach has a pit and I know that too,
And I put it in along with everything
To make the grown-ups laugh whenever I sing:
And I sing: It is true; It is untrue;
I know, I know, the true is untrue,
The peach has a pit,
The pit has a peach:
And both may be wrong
When I sing my song,
But I don’t tell the grown-ups because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up
And forgot what they knew
And they are sure
I will forget it someday too.
They are wrong. They are wrong.
When I sang my song, I knew! I knew!
I am red, I am gold,
I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me,
I will always be new!’

“When I sang my song, I knew! I knew!” The process being sung here is the sine qua non of creative discovery. In its thrall, we are and are not our ego selves, and like Roethke’s upside-down, inscrutable animal in his poem, “The Sloth,” we “just know” we know.

The song, the singing, has inherent value to a child. Adults lose some of this value when we take for granted an everyday reality defined by our “experiencing the working self as the total self,” as Susan Stewart puts it—that is, if we have forgotten creativity is a form of play. Children’s poetry thus helpfully models writing as a process of irreverent and curious play—whether or not what we make makes sense to the workaday literary establishment.

My favorite children’s poems hold a space for the uncanny—the lady/bug, the little man, what’s speckled or blurring or un-pin-downable. These poems do our American culture—so focused on productivity and profit—a deep service. They help our children navigate contradiction, tolerate ambiguity, and honor the gift of imagination that is their birthright. They reframe what we adults may have assumed about “the way things are,” including our own selves and lives, which are perhaps more protean, more indefinite, and more magical than we’ve allowed for. No matter our age, children’s poems can companion us gently through our curiosity, confidence, hurt, fear, and joy. Readers and writers of contemporary poetry might underrate the role of playfulness in good literature. But if they do, “they are wrong, they are wrong.”

Erin Redfern’s work has recently appeared in Fire & Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager), Split Rock Review, and the North American Review, where it was runner-up for the 2020 James Hearst Poetry Prize. Her chapbook is Spellbreaking and Other Life Skills (Blue Lyra Press). She teaches writing and poetry online. Read more at erinredfern.net

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