The childhood juvenilia of famous poets is usually interesting – the first uncertain steps, the incorporation of nursery rhyme, and yes, a naivety that is pleasing. But what if a child is already a good poet as is Laura Ranger? Does this give a different perspective?
Poets like to explore the theme of their own creativity. Often this involves going back to their childhood. The young Wordsworth rowing out across the lake, Dylan Thomas free and lyrical under the apple boughs, Rachel McAlpine being towelled dry by her father along with her sisters, Robin Hyde watching two lovers from the periwinkles in the sand dunes, Baxter playing around the verges of Virginia Lake: all seek again a cherished experience of awe, freshness, magic, joy, security, knowledge, simplicity, or clarity. Baxter’s theme – the loss of innocence – is very common.
Christian or post-Christian English-speaking poets tend to be obsessed by the Fall (It is not necessarily a universal theme. I recall seeing, at Nice, a group of Japanese tourists in front of a series of large Chagall paintings of Adam and Eve being driven from the garden, while their translator conveyed the explanations of the French guide. The lack of comprehension in their bewildered looks was obvious. In order to communicate, art like language needs shared myths.)
So for many western poets, trailing clouds of glory, the child lives at ease until the serpent appears. Children are also inhabitants of an adult world. Experience can be observed or learnt to be written about in later years. Upon some past event, the adult poet imposes myth, through the recollection (or creation) of memory. Poets with their noisy egos look back to a vanished world to explain or compare the present. Historically, New Zealand verse in English has always contained a large element of nostalgic wistfulness – the poetry of settlement, of regret, of deprivation.
But what of children’s writing itself’? Living in the present, how do they portray the world? We underestimate their abilities. As a teacher the lessons I enjoyed most were creative writing – unlocking experience through language. Time after time I was amazed at how a student who had not shown much competence would suddenly come up with words and images that left me humbled at my temerity in making judgments about them. The system I was working in imposed a structure that was all too often not conducive to learning and creativity. Education is the human attempt to systematise learning. By its very lockstep nature, (its present form definitely reflects its industrial revolution origins), it tends to stifle creativity. Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, D H Lawrence, Denis Glover, have all railed against the schoolroom. (Ironically, it is the teachers who have helped preserve their fame.)
Like most secondary school teachers of my vintage, I had not heard of Piaget when I began my work at the trade. My early teaching was a mish-mash from my own school days and what was happening in neighbouring classrooms. Slowly, my own style and philosophy for teaching English evolved. It boiled down to three activities – keep students working hard at achievable tasks, surround them with books, with every opportunity to read them, and get each one writing. By the time I read Piaget my skills had become rather settled.
Besides, Piaget did not equate with my experience. Admittedly, I was teaching youngsters in their teens, but they did seem to have developed concepts from their very early years; they were both egocentric and worldly-wise, rigid in their thinking yet capable of making vast lateral leaps. They did spend effort exploring what it was like to be growing up in New Zealand, but they spent equally as much energy exploring what it meant to be growing up. In the words of the poet, “things being various”, the actuality was more complex than the theory. This, though it may appear to be so, is not an attack upon theory; rather an expression of our need to question it.
Today, much of what Piaget claimed is in disrepute. He taught that learning was essentially determined by the level of development the child had achieved. People now accept that learning is more diverse than he stated. Human beings are curious. They ask questions, seek solutions, like exploring, but they do those things in vastly different ways and at various ages.
One of the problems that Piaget created for educators was that his ideas about cognitive development were transferred to creativity as well as moral development. And not just education – the ideas were applied across society. Aesthetically, this application was fallacious, as Mozart or Grandma Moses illustrate. Artists, be they poets or painters, do not become artists in a series of predetermined steps. It was the commonly held assumptions about growing up and maturation that made it difficult for me to persuade youngsters that doing their own writing was important, let alone easy.
There were two further challenges in getting them engaged at the task. The first was to get beyond the cultural secondhand and cliché from film or print. It is a question of integrity where the teacher has to walk warily. Some images and ideas appear archetypal, others appear false. Tigers and crocodiles seemed legitimate, murder and mayhem in the style of Hollywood not so. Further, fashions change in images and ideas – Star Trek comes in, Robin Hood goes out.
The second challenge was that the older students grew, the more inhibited they became. Third formers would write comfortably in free verse about the wind in their hair as they galloped their horse or rode their bikes over the poor squashed hedgehog on the road. Senior students had all too often learnt that poetry was stern stuff. Once persuaded that its creation did not involve stuffing it full of hidden meanings for some planned treasure hunt, and that the flow of associations was what was desired, they would happily write for hours. Older adolescents tended to sum up – language gives control of the universe. Acceptance of the idea that metaphor has little closed meaning is one of the most empowering things they can learn. Sometimes as I watched them writing, I had a sense of having missed the bus. If only they had been exposed to this excitement earlier, what poems and prose they might have written. Elwyn Richardson’s In The Early World impressed me with the possibilities inherent in much younger children.
Which brings me to the work of Laura Ranger. Laura’s Poems is a collection of her work written between the ages of 6 and 9. The American children’s magazine Stone Soap published her first poem, “Sands”, written when she was 6. Her second poem, “Autumn Leaves” shared first prize with Lauris Edmond in the Whitireia Poetry Competition. Bill Manhire chose one of her poems to be included in his 100 New Zealand Poems. An impressive pedigree already.
Manhire, one of our most gifted teachers of writing, gives an introduction to Laura’s poems. His admiration for her work has been shared by earlier reviewers. Manhire describes her as “a real poet.” He is right. Age proves not to be a barrier. Another assumption, that the poems would prove slightly saccharine, Shirley Temple in verse, is also wrong.
The poems are so impressive, one forgets to be the critic. Laura is a poet in terms of her delight in words, curiosity about things, creation of new thoughts, her metaphors, her economy of scale, her conveyance of mood. This is the authentic thing, a poet’s vision from a child, egocentric yet universal. She convinces that her world exists. To read her is to return to an early world. She knows and gives the pleasure of moving within language with exactitude.
Here is the piece Manhire anthologised.
Two Word Poem
The toad sat on a red stool
it was a toadstool.
The rain tied a bow
in the cloud’s hair
it was a rainbow.
Which witch put sand
in my sandwich?
I stood upon the bridge
then I understood.
I sat on the ledge and
thought about what I know.
It was knowledge.
It’s a clever poem, a plain poem, a poem of humour. The frugality of it is like a series of Japanese haiku – in fact it is pre-Fall. Not a word is surplus or out of place. Its directness of statement is perfect. The acuteness of the puns in the last lines is breathtaking. It is both natural and truthful. It reads as spontaneous, but I have a hunch it took considerable effort. It does not strain for meaning, but it is wise. And it was written by a 7-year-old.
Laura proves equally skilful in the use of metaphor. “At sunset/ we were plodding/ along the sand dunes./ The sun was spying on us/ through a telescope,/ from behind the trees.” She has an ability to take a fragmentary experience and present it with a striking tautness. She proves Piaget wrong. Interestingly, she has not written much about school – only one poem.
Rather, Laura writes about her pets a great deal.
Number Two Dog Poem
When the sun is behind him
his shadow is like an arrow.
His mouth is as black
as a piece of burnt coal.
His ears hang down
like golden autumn leaves.
The fur on his neck
is as frilly as a ballet tutu,
but his legs are like
worn out stockings.
His tail flaps in the wind
like a piece of flax.
Number Two Dog is a particular animal. But the poem is also about a universal creature, exciting and provocative in its description – power, mystery, wealth, beauty, comfort and a piece of nature at the mercy of nature. Her poems are “kiwi” but they transcend the narrow focus of our identity in these small islands. They would be easily translatable – myth and real world co-exist. She has a poet’s delight in expressing the usual unusually. Her cat Blue “sleeps in his clothes/ so he’s the first one/ dressed in the morning.” Or again, “Where does the sky/ meet the earth?/ Outside, everywhere,/ in my back yard.”
This book did four things for me. I wanted to share it, which is what I always do with a book I enjoy. It made me look at Wordsworth again. Laura exhibits that that elemental quality he sought – “the wind is writing/ what it knows/ in lines along the water”. It sent me on a nostalgia jag back to my teaching days. And it gave me pleasure that our community has in its midst such talent and promise.
Years ago I edited an anthology of New Zealand poetry for third and fourth formers. We trialed the selection in a few Wellington schools. One teacher said a pupil in her class was turning out some good poems. We incorporated three of them into the book, and from one came its title A Cage of Words. About 10 months later I ran into Jane’s teacher and asked after the budding poet. “She’s fallen in love and has written nothing since.” The muse departs in many ways. One of the saddest sentences in our literature is Blanche Baughan’s “After an illness the poetic impulse failed in me, vanished and to my great grief has never returned”. I am not a praying man, but if I were, I would ask that Laura’s gift does not leave her in all the experiences (and applause) ahead.
There would be a codicil to that prayer – would every teacher in the land use this book with their charges – not as law, but as kindling.
Harvey McQueen is a Wellington educator and poet. His most recent publication was Education is change.