Several months ago I had occasion to live briefly with two university teachers and their three small children, the eldest of which was 9. I was skeptical ("scared" would be a better word) about living in a house with three children. I like children; I just had not lived with any, or been this close to them, for a number of years. In my uncertainty I prepared myself for the worst. Intolerance, ridicule, silence, or outright rejection.
Those skepticisms were unconfirmed.
All of the three children went out of their way to be friendly, to share aspects of their personal lives with a person they knew nothing about. They were trusting, generous, and thoughtful. They also talked a lot.
Their favorite class, they told me, was their poetry workshop. "We get to write about anything we want -- not like history or mathematics -- and we don't get a grade."
I told them writing was my major in college. "Neat!" they said, and asked for a reading of something I'd written. I read a short piece, and requested a reciprocal reading of something they'd written for their workshop. I was impressed by what I heard, its enthusiasm, joy, and natural music. The quality and originality of their perceptions left me amazed. It contrasted so refreshingly with the self-conscious, affected, and literary "stuffiness" of the writings from the university. The children saw the world in a fresh and unique way. If a thing didn't yet have a definition, they'd ask someone or invent their own. When their workshop teacher described to them the meanings of simile and metaphor, they already knew. "That red rose there is like my mother's smile ," one childe informed me.
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Because it's so beautiful. And because my mother's smile is so beautiful."
These children's imaginative and associative powers are what, among others things, make them different from us. Adults tend to turn on television, and turn off the imagination. In children the imagination is a way of understanding the world, of naming it, making themselves part of it. Their lives unfold as a process of discovery: finding new ways of seeing, feeling, understanding.
As a "creative writing" student I was intrigued by their perceptual abilities. I was also saddened by the forces that caused, as children grow up, a suppression of their imaginations, their diminished interest in art, poetry, writing, and creative self-expression, those things so important to our humanity.
Why? I wondered. I carried the question around in my head for several days.
It obviously wasn't something that could be answered easily. Part of it related to the increasing importance of technology and the diminishing interest in the arts. But that was only part of it. In our school systems there's a general fear of self-expression, of being different, of saying something that might set us apart from our peers. The need to conform -- in and out of school -- has taken priority over our need to assert our individuality. The result, in this world of convenience stores, look-alike houses, clothes, and hairstyles, is depressingly obvious.
As I got to know the children in the writing class -- for I was permitted to participate as a student -- I was even more amazed. In the context of the creative writing workshop many of the communication barriers were broken down. Furthermore, the kids appeared as natural poets.After their self-consciousness was dissolved, they began to delight in both the process of writing and in readng their work before the class. Doing so obviously gave them a sense of their common humanity, at the same time making them aware of their own uniqueness. The workshop provided a context for these aspects of themselves, this new self-knowledge. The teacher was especially good in facilitating this process. His emphasis was on the possibilities of language, on finding their own resources, rather than on mechanics and form -- rhyme, meter, terminology. He showed them that it was possible to have fun with words, to use language to invent new worlds and new experiences. By doing that he opened the door to a new understanding of themselves.
Between the more frivolous exercises were serious discussions of the poetry of John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Each class was concluded with a specific assignment. Some were reading or writing assignments, while others, and the one I remember best, was the Dream Poem assignment. The students were asked to recall -- or to invent -- one of their dreams. They were permitted to make changes in the dream if they liked. The important thing was the writing of it: the conversion of thought into written language.
Later, when one of the girls was reading aloud her own poem she asked, rather wistfully, for a definition of poerty. The instructor, quoting the poet Robert Bly, said that "Poetry is a dream that is shared with others. . . ."
i agreed. The best poems arem dreams. And we need to share them!