Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Where are all the poetical prodigies?


mozart ok If you were asked to think of a prodigy, who would jump to mind? I would suggest that that list would be topped by Mozart. Wee Wölfi began to play the harpsichord when he was 3. By 5 he was performing publicly and had begun composing. But were these early pieces any good? Well, good enough at the time but the earliest work by him that is still performed today is Exsultate, Jubilate K165, written in 1773 when he was 17. (The K refers to Köchel, a musicologist who catalogued Mozart's complete output which makes Exsultate, Jubilate his 165th composition.)

Musical prodigies come ten a penny. If I restrict myself to the composers, though, there are a few well-known names there who made careers out of music: Mendelssohn was 12 when he started; Nino Rota and Korngold (best known as composer of film music) began at 11; Bizet entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 10 whilst Menotti began writing music at the tender age of 7, as did Paganini, Barber and Rheinberger.

So, how do you decide who's the greatest? According to the Times:

Ask most people to name classical music’s greatest child prodigy and you’d guess they would probably say Mozart. Not according to a poll in next month’s BBC Music Magazine, where Mendelssohn comes top, followed by Schubert. And Mozart? Not even in the top 10.

This rum result is partly to do with a condition of the poll, carried out by the country’s “most renowned” critics. The composers’ works had to be written before they were 18. And although little Wolfgang might have begun scribbling at the age of 5, he did nothing of great note, apparently, until his Symphony in A Major, K201, written when he was already 18. Quite a put-down for a man who composed more than 600 works before his death, aged 35. – TimesOnline, May 17th 2009

Prior There was a recent television series highlighting the talents of Alex Prior (born 5 October 1992 in London) who began composing when he was only 8 and has already got 4 symphonies, 4 concertos, 2 ballets and an opera under his belt; the programme we saw concerned his Concerto for 4 soloists and orchestra, Velesslavitsa, the premiere of which featured 4 child prodigies as the soloists that were hand-picked during the series.

Just what is a child prodigy, though?

According to American developmental psychologist Dr David Henry Feldman, typically it is a child younger than 10 who is performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a very demanding field of endeavour. –

Other sites say they can be anything up to 13 or even 15.

Musical prodigies are well known, as are science prodigies, maths prodigies, chess prodigies, but where are the poets?

In the future I won't need a Köchel to come along and catalogue my poems. I've been cataloguing and numbering them since I was 13 and by the time I'd reached 17 I'd already passed the 400 mark, 99% of which were eminently forgettable. I was first published at 16 and continued to see my name in print from then on. But was I a prodigy? I think not.

Wikipedia has a list of child prodigies and from it I extracted the poets:

Ervin Hatibi published his first poems at 14 in the major journals of the time, and, at 15, published his first book - well acclaimed by the critics.

William Cullen Bryant was published at 10 years old; at 13 years old, he published a book of political-satire poems.

Thomas Chatterton started as a poet at 11 years old. He began writing the poems that would make him famous at 12 years old.

Lucretia Maria Davidson, by 11 years old, had written some poems of note; before her death at 16 years old, she received praise as a writer.

Marjorie Fleming was a published poet before her death at 8 years old.

H. P. Lovecraft recited poetry at 2 years old and wrote long poems at 5 years old.

Other than Lovecraft – and who thinks of him as a poet nowadays? – I knew none of the names. So I started to see what I could discover on my own.

Milton was my first discovery, the only one I know as a poet. He started writing when he was 10.

Frankly, I don't think 10 is that amazing. And I certainly expect there are loads of poets out there who began writing by the age of 12. The question is: Have they written anything memorable? And I bet the answer is: No. I still have all my juvenilia. Almost all the paintings and music are long gone following a stupid self-righteous clear out about twenty years ago but the poems survived. I can think of very little I own from before I was twenty apart from them. A letter opener from Arran (or perhaps Dunoon) is the only other thing that jumps to mind although it's an ugly thing with some animal's leg as a handle. I have no idea what possessed me to buy it even at the time.

akiane3 One prodigy I found online is a young girl called Akiane Kramarik, who is 13 now. You can read a selection of the poetry she has written between the ages of 7 and 11 here. She's probably better known as a painter and, while I'm not particularly taken by her work’s New Age-ness, I can't criticise her technique. I have seen far worse made into mass-market prints. One has to wonder if Mozart would be marketed more vigorously nowadays and I guess knowing what I do about Leopold (his dad) the answer would be: Yes.

I'm going to have a look at one of Akiane's poems on the subject of love. I'm assuming she was 11 when she wrote this one and, of course, one has to ask: What does a kid of 11 know about love?


Love is never alone
Love is always crowded
Love is the shared self
We cannot own our love
And we cannot teach our love
The longest breath of love
is the shortest distance to heaven
The deepest life is love
The deepest love is an embrace
Love is not rest
Love is peace
Love is the purpose

Seriously I wonder how many times people have attempted this very poem? And how do you write about love without dipping into the vast well of clichés that exist revolving around it? That's a hard one. I suppose it's one of those we need to get out of our system before we move on. Akiane's chosen to go down the 1 Corinthians 13 route and that's just fine, agape love is as valid a subject as any of the other loves. The problem is, how to improve on the scripture:

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I actually think she's done a fair job. And I so badly want to write ". . . for a kid," but I'm not going to. The whole thing about prodigies is that they need to be measured on adult terms – Akiane is either a good poet, full stop, or she's not. On the whole I think what's she's produced is the kind of stuff that a lot of kids who've undergone a strict religious upbringing might have done; yes, she's a bit precocious but I don’t see her, poetically anyway, as a child genius; her art is another thing entirely.

My very first poem was about love, the unrequited kind. 275 poems later I finally got round to trying to define love and it's just about as bad as you'd expect with a line like "Olives, vines and marble pillars" in it but I don't mind sharing poem #1 because I realised when I'd written it that I had something, didn't know quite what and it was years before it became clear to me:

Dreams Don't Come True

I put my arm around her shoulder,
I touched her skin:
So soft.
It was all unreal, a fantasy.
Her hands were on her lap.
Her lips were sealed.
So cold.
She was so cold.
And I,
So helpless.

A beautiful thing,
Lovely and fair,
Colder than ice,
Heart of stone,
She and I alone:
And she was so cold.

I talked a little,
She laughed me off.
Like the fly on the horse's back,
Crushed my dream,
Crushed my hope,
Squashed my life, my soul.

And she was so cold.

I never dated my poems back then but I'd say I was 13 at the time. And I'm sure it's not the worst poem that a 13-year-old has written but I would never pretend to be any kind of prodigy. For all that it's still a poem that still manages to please me 37 years later.

Someone said – I forget who and, for once, Google has let me down – that no one should be allowed to be a writer until they reach 30. By 30 I'd just about given up writing. Oh, I'd been published, loads of times, but that stopped mattering to me and I hardly sent anything out and finally I stopped writing completely. And then I hit my mid-thirties and began writing novels. Who the hell knew there was a novelist in there? Certainly not me. And after two novels the poetry came back.

The point that guy (I think it was a guy) had to make is to do with life experience. If I can twist a scripture to my own ends: When I was a child I wrote as a child but when I became a man I wrote like a man. There are two things that contribute to someone becoming a half-decent writer: reading and living, and both take time. Add these to natural talent and you might just have a fighting chance of making it as a writer.

I'm not sure that this applies to the other arts. As one can see by Akiane's paintings, they stand up against the paintings of adults; you would never know that Mozart's Symphony No 1 had been written by a child (I have a copy so I can say for sure) although it is understandably derivative. Mind you if you're going to copy anyone then the Bachs are a good place to start.

Another prodigy I ran across was Mattie Stepanek who died recently at the age of 13; he suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy. He has been hailed not only as a poet but a peacemaker. stepanekPrecociously intelligent from all accounts, he began writing poetry at age 3 to cope with the death of his brother. He had apparently written hundreds of poems by the time he was 6. Only time will tell if he will be remembered or not but I suspect his response to the events of September 2001 might just be. It's hard to say. So many artists responded to that event that his poem might just get lost in the fray.

FOR OUR WORLD – Written September 2001

We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment…
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.
We need to be silent.
Just silent.
Silent for a moment…
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.
We need to notice.
Just notice.
Notice for a moment…
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.

                       Stop, be silent, and notice…
                       In so many ways, we are the same.
                       Our differences are unique treasures,
                       We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
                       To nurture, to offer, to accept.
                       We need to be.
                       Just be.
                       Be for a moment…
                       Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting.
                       Like children and lambs.
                       Never judging or vengeful
                       Like the judging and vengeful.
                       And now, let us pray.
                       Differently, yet together,
                       Before there is no earth, no life,
                       No chance for peace.

After him I'm struggling. Why?

Prodigies tend to appear almost exclusively in "rule-based" fields like music, chess or mathematics. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited, likens child prodigies to computers: Both excel in symbol manipulation, but fail to impress when it comes to the fuzzier undertakings.

“Fields like literature require maturity and life experience,” he explains. “Prodigies, no matter how gifted, rarely possess the requisite emotional spectrum, an acquaintance with the nuances and subtleties of human relationships, or the accumulated knowledge that comes from first-hand exposure to the ups and downs of reality.”

Some scholars, however, have argued that brilliant young minds like H.P. Lovecraft (who composed long poems by age 5) and John Stuart Mill (who knew several dead languages by age 8) were indeed gifted enough to qualify as prodigies. But they are in the minority. – 'Whiz Kids',

So what do you think? Is there a poetic prodigy out there who could stand shoulder to shoulder – metaphorically speaking – with Eliot or Yeats or Heaney or even Kipling? I await you comments.


djWhite said...

Where are all the poetic prodigies?

Well -- I'm right here! LOL.

Any who, Poetry is subjective -- whether the poet is a great writer or not depends on what the reader likes.

Personally, I like and write free verse poetry. I don't care for form poetry and like rhyming poetry even less.

For me, Billy Collins is a prodigy. His poetry is so -- "alive" my same thoughts are for Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath.

What it boils down to is what moves the person reading the poem/poetry.

If a certain Poet has an astronomical fan base, then that poet may be considered a prodigy.

Just my thoughts on the subject.

Cy Mathews said...

ooouuuuhhhhh.....both Akiane and Mattie Stephanek's poems (I've read Stephanek's before) strike me as dreadful for two reasons:

1: Unoriginal and sappy as hell

2: (and this is worse) they come across as poems written to please adults - the kind of poem that will make a certain type of grown-up cry out "Oh, the innocence and honesty of children!" - as opposed to real products of a child's rich imaginative life.

Your own poem from age 13 is better - a little melodramtic, sure, but at least you had some nice specific imagery instead of just vapid audience-pleasing generalisations.

I'm going to plug Kenneth Koch's "Wishes, Lies and Dreams" book again, most of which is made up of poem written by his 6-14 year old students. Simply through being in a relaxed, fun environment in which they were able to explore their own creativity without pandering to adult preconceptions, his students wrote poems that are better than a lot of "adult" poetry.

Cy Mathews said...

for example:

Green is the color of the universe.
A steeple of stars all green
Towers over the world
The stars look like emeralds
Scattered through the greenish hue
Of the universe so green.
On a dark green planet
Eight trillion green years away
A frog sits in the green night
All you can see is a shimmer of green
On the skin of green algar
In that green planet
Eight trillion green years away
Through endless miles of green void.
Galorp, galorp, burble, gurble
The frog disappears in the dark green night.
In that green world an animal lives on green oranges
He wanders through the green endlessness of the universe.
Through the emerald green spire
To that small green planet
Eight trillion green years away.

- Jeff Morley, 10 years old
from Koch's book.

Elisabeth said...

I agree with Cy Mathews about the business of these prodigies who write maudlin poems that appeal to certain adults, as opposed to something that is actually creative and therefore has that 'messy' edge.

When I was a child I wrote in ways I thought would please the adults and produced a great deal of sappy crap.

Your thirteen year old poem, Jim, resonates for me and I'm impressed by the fact that you have such a wealth of artifacts from your childhood poetry collection.

I have next to nothing left from my childhood except in my head.

I'm dubious about the notion of prodigy and genius whether in children or in adults. I know it exists but again I suspect in the case of children it's about pandering to adult desires - my child the genius as a reflection of parental narcissism - or it comes mechanically.

Sometimes I think all children, the younger the better, especially before the so-called age of reason at seven years, are amazingly like prodigies, in that all they encounter and do is fresh and new, until of course parents and teachers start to interfere.

And what of the notion that creativity is drummed out of children once they enter into formal education?

I suspect there's some truth to that. Maybe children have to move into adulthood and beyond before they can feel free to express themselves beyond the rules.

My daughters in their final years of school often reprimanded me when I made suggestions that I thought might help them with their writing: No no we cannot be creative here. We have to follow set rules or else we will lose marks.

That said it may be the rebellious ones who are the more creative.

I know here I'm moving away from genius to creativity, but I suspect that the two can be linked.

What do you and others think?

Idiot savants, autism etc comes to mind.

These brilliant kids who are amazing at maths, chess, piano etc but cannot relate at a social level. I can't imagine such a child writing good poetry, as you suggest, Jim, technical brilliance is no the same as intuitive and creative success.

Paul said...

Generally I'ld agree with you. No-one under 30 should call themselves a poet. They may write poetry but that is a long apprenticeship. The only exception I could think of was Rimbaud. A 700 word on learning Latin at 9 yearls old, published in a major journal at 15, famous at sixteen and so on. Definitely the exception that proves the rule though.

Cy Mathews said...

I hope I didn't offend anyone with my dismissal of those kids, by the way - especially Stephanik, who I understand people might feel emotional about. I've been in an argumentative mood today, which is odd for me. I mean, I still think their poetry isn't very good, but I could have found a nicer way to say it.

Jim Murdoch said...

You make an interesting point, djWhite: should a child's prodigiousness be determined by their ability or their popularity? Of course popularity is a measure of certain ability but is the proletariat who we should be listening to or the cognoscenti? This has always been an issue among adults so why not when it comes to extraordinary children? Is Terry Pratchett as prodigious a writer as Harold Pinter? Horses for courses, I says.

Cy, you are spot on - melodramatic! - yes, I couldn't have said it better, in a word. As for the other poetry, again you seem to have hit the nail on the head but the big question has to be: What was the child's intent? Akiane is being heavily marketed. I think you could even call her a brand, a term I've never cared for because it suggest hot irons. Mattie I have a bit more faith in. I do agree that whether they intended it or not both of these poets have produced work that will appeal to a specific demographic which brings us to djWhite's excellent point.

I quite like young Jeff's poem. My question is whether he's using 'green' in an environmental sense. It's what jumped out at me even if not intended.

And, as for the later comment, you are entitled to your opinion; I don't think you were too hard. Incidentally my readers leapt up to 282 for yesterday and I'm putting that down to including 'Akiane' in the tags. I agree with you as regards their poetry. Technically it isn't very good but clearly technique isn't everything.

Elisabeth, I think there are too many words bandied around these days that have become devalued. 'Genius' one of them and of course there is a number attached to what an overall genius is – an IQ circa 135+ - but Galton, who invented intelligence testing believed in a non-random factor, "natural ability", which he defined as "those qualities of intellect and disposition, which urge and qualify men to perform acts that lead to reputation…" There are clearly people who have this natural ability and only need to be introduced to a means through which they can express it, e.g. if the pianoforte had never been invented would Mozart have excelled on the violin or would he have vanished unknown into history?

I'm sure there are hundreds of students out there who've got their Grade 8 in Piano but how many are piano players and how many are pianists, if I can draw the distinction?

I have a sneaking opinion about the Greats across the board that abilities come at a price, that people like Mozart and Picasso are broken in one way and they compensate in another. Asimov expressed it very simply in one of his robot stories where the robot showed an artistic talent that hadn't been pre-programmed and the manufacturer wanted to 'fix' him. We see this most clearly in the cases of idiot savants and autistics as you mention.

Dalí is not normally mentioned as a child prodigy but he did begin at a young age – he had his first public exhibition when he was only fifteen – but he also dabbled in other forms of expression notably writing but anyone who has ever read anything he has written would never think this was the work of a literary genius. There is no doubt that Akiane is a highly talented artist and that ability was expressed from a very early age but her writing is nothing particularly exceptional for a young girl and, to my mind, is only receiving attention on the back of her artistic success.

And, Paul, yes, we're clearly singing from the same hymn sheet you and I. You're quite right about Rimbaud – I came across him in my travels – but I suppose one could also ask: Who can name anything he wrote let along quote from it? I can see several Picassos in my head just now and if I wasn't listening to the soundtrack to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country I could hum half a dozen tunes by Mozart.

Elisabeth said...

To my mind, Jim, you're a bit of a 'genius' yourself, at least in so far as you are articulate and knowledgeable on such a broad range of topics, and you've been at it since you were young.

Jim Murdoch said...

Which brings us right back to djWhite's point, Lis. I'd happily trade in the mantel of 'genius' for a bit more success because I'm not comfortable with it and I really don't think I can carry it off. Put me in a room with a cross-section of true genii and you'll soon lose faith in me. An old boss of mine once introduced me to someone as "the cleverest person he'd ever met" which I can only assume to mean that he hadn't met very many really clever people in his life if I impressed him that much. I will admit to being intelligent – I actually think my IQ was 120 the last time I took the test – but that is it. I had a friend who took the test for Mensa and wanted me to. I declined. Why would I want to deliberately go out of my way to distance myself from most of the people on the planet?

Conda Douglas said...

I think the difficulty with a poetical prodigy is for the very reasons you state in this excellent entry, Jim.

Judging poetry is extremely objective (if you don't believe me read some poems by some 19th century poets considered to be the greats of their time--the ones who have fallen far and hard). It's not the same as music or mathematics, which as you point out, have rules and can be measured by same. So getting an agreement to who's a prodigy is tough.

Elisabeth said...

Jim, I'd score badly on a Mensa test, an IQ test, or any other such test of intelligence and I don't think it means I'm unintelligent.

Once upon a time I did.

Now I have a deep suspicion of all tests psychological. They are geared towards identifying certain limited features and they overlook many others. They're far too reductive.

There's such a thing as practical intelligence, which links to emotional intelligence. I've heard about some research that showed that many of the people who spent their childhoods and young adulthood at school and university getting As and distinctions in all their subjects are often not the highest achievers in later life.

These bright young things can tend to blend into the background. It's the ones who have aptitude in certain areas and who are otherwise likely to fail in others who most often do the best in later life.

It probably has something to do with following one's passions I suppose and also of having the opportunity to overcome adversity, as I've just written elsewhere in Conda V Douglas's blog about success and failure.

I remember well as a young woman about to finish school when I sat for a series of aptitude tests. I have an image of flags in different shapes and colours. I was meant to put them into certain arrangements. I couldn't for the life of me do it. I knew then that I would never be a librarian, for which I was being tested. I was not, I thought smart enough.

Similarly now, if I am faced with anything other than a simple mathematical problem, my eyes glaze over and my head hurts. I can't do it.

This is not about a lack of intelligence I suspect. More about that age old phobia. I was brought up with the idea that 'girls can't do maths' and I believed it, then. I still have trouble getting past that notion now. I suspect I'm not alone in this.

One of my brothers who is good at maths reckons that maths is just another language. I'm good at languages, he says, therefore I should be good at maths.

This is too simplistic. I think my point is that emotional factors come to bear on our intelligence and can aid or hinder it on so many levels.

I'm on a roll here. I have all these anecdotes pouring into my brain. I have moved beyond the idea of child prodigies and poetry. I must stop.

Thanks for another inspirational posting.

Art Durkee said...

I started composing music when I was 8 or 9; I wouldn't say the music was remotely good at all, but I was doing it. I was writing poetry at that age, too, with the same child-level results. I actually never got serious about writing poetry until I was in my 20s, when I encountered some poetry in college that gave me the push I needed, and the permission to write what I wanted to write, which wasn't like any other poetry that I had encountered before then. I was a musical prodigy as a kid, in terms of playing piano; but my parents didn't push me into that "gifted child" path, and I also didn't want to go there. For one thing, I've always hated practicing, and far preferred playing. Eventually that led me to free improv over playing existing compositions.

I don't see how a poetry prodigy would be different than a music prodigy: the basic test is the same: a young person doing an art at a level normally considered to be an adult level. Prodigies are probably more common than we think they are, in all the arts.

But poetry needs to be written from experience, experience with AND with language, and that means it's more likely to happen with a teenager than with an 8-year-old. Which would account for Keats. I'm familiar with Bryant and Chatterton, but not the others on your list.

And the quality issue matters a great deal: as has been pointed out, some young writers write what they write to please adults, as a sort of parlor trick. I'm glad Kenneth Koch was mentioned, as his work has been very good in this arena. I quite agree that many kids, when relaxed and allowed to be natural, write poems as good or better than much published adult poetry. There is a virtue, at times, to not knowing what you're doing. That way, it's not a replication or imitation of what has gone before.

I was 16 when I wrote my first chapbook of poems, or long poem sequence, whatever you want to call it. It had a lot of energy, and was pretty good, but I know it was derivative because I know what inspired it. Yet the adults around me liked it, and supported me in writing. Till I started to express things they found uncomfortable, of course; like my sexuality, and visionary experiences. Then they quietly backed away. I was probably getting too messy.

So the child prodigy thing is a bit of an adult thing, a bit of a performing monkey thing. Kids, if left to their own devices, are often quite a bit more creative than adults think they are. They are capable of so much, that one sometimes thinks that the only reason more child prodigies aren't recognized is that adults can't recognize them. And of course parental narcissism does play a role, as has also been mentioned already.

What always astounds me is that adults seem to forget their own childhoods, and lose touch with the vast well of imagination that kids can have.

Jim Murdoch said...

Fair point, Conda, but even though poetry is not as rigid as it was 100 years ago no one would suggest that Seamus Heaney ought not to have been given the Nobel Prize. Great poetry transcends mere technique. Granted it can and is enhanced by it but technique can be taught. In the 19th century technique often gets in the way and it's hard for us to tell a great poem from an average one but surely the people at the time who were more attuned could but the fact is that there were no more poetical prodigies recognised then than there are now.

I agree totally that there are different intelligences, Lis, that aren't so easily quantifiable. I also think your brother has a point when it comes to the language of maths. I know a lot of people think of it as a left/right brain thing – if you're good at one you're not supposed to be so hot at the other – but I excelled in both English and Maths at school and I took to programming languages like the proverbial duck to water.

I was top of my class at school but I very much doubt whether I have achieved a fraction of the success of many of my peers. Even in the field I supposedly excel in I've had no success. I'm not known. I've not won prizes. I've never even been published in any magazine of note. I'm not sure intelligence is all its cracked up to be because there are so many things that work against it.

And, Art, good point about the performing monkey. We adults are so keen to put things in little boxes, to label and then to market. Is this attitude a product of spending too long in a consumer society? One has to wonder. As soon as you give anything a name you open up a Pandora's Box of expectations. I've had a life full of it. No wonder I'm so preoccupied with failure because I was always being expected to exceed expectations and the one thing I learned I could always do was let people down. I had a friend once, the one who wanted me to take the Mensa test as it happens, and, years after our lives had headed off into different directions I learned that his son was "gifted" and I remember thinking: Poor bugger. He couldn't have been brought up in a better environment you would have thought, with money and clever parents, but can you just imagine the expectations?

Marion McCready said...

A fascinating post as always, Jim. Sylvia Plath had her first poem published in the Boston Herald when she was eight years old.
Dunno when Keats starting writing but he died at the age of 25 or 26 so I'm guessing he started early (I guess that also blows the 'no one under 30 should call themselves a poet' theory out the window!).

Rachel Fenton said...

I don't think you can be a prodigy and experience a full spectrum of emotions, ie, what is needed to be a great poet.

Marion McCready said...

Yesterday's Times had a wee section on child prodigies. This had me gobsmacked:

"Budhia Singh from India became known as the world's youngest long distance runner in 2005, when it was revealed that, aged three and a half, he ran seven hours at a stretch, sometimes as far as 48km (thirty miles)"

Jim Murdoch said...

I'd heard that about Plath before, Sorlil. I wonder how much of her juvenalia is known? I have a collection of Larkin's poetry that includes a selection of his very early work but it's not very exciting or outstanding, interesting only because he wrote it. As for the kid running thirty miles - I assume there was an adult following him or maybe they simply send him out with a note pinned to his loincloth: "If this kid ends up on your doorstep please call this number..."

And, Rachel, if I can play devil's advocate here . . . does a great poet need access to the full range of emotions? A lot of great writers specialise and tend to focus of a narrow range. I'm not exactly known for my jolly romps, written or otherwise.

Dick said...

As a one-time English teacher, I came across one or two kids who married facility with language with mastery of style. I kept in touch with one of them and she's given up on poetry completely now.

As for my juvenilia, I've kept it all, demonstrating, I think, a considerable sense of humour regarding my past self. I was amazingly prolific in my mid-teens, turning out several poems a day, each and every one of them howling crap.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Dick, that I'm amazed that I never packed this all in years ago. So much of what I wrote was dire. At least the music was something people could whistle along to. But the poetry, with the exception of that first one which I'll always have a soft spot for, nah. I was no prodigy. I'm not sure how I've managed to hang onto it all so much stuff has been discarded along the way. And yet I have.

Youngsters experiment. It's in their natures. But not everything is natural. I experimented with music and art and there's absolutely no reason why I couldn't have continued indeed I did right into my twenties but I was going through the motions. My natural response to life was to write about it not to draw it or write songs about it. So I can understand your former pupil quitting. I imagine far more have than stuck with it.

Cy Mathews said...

Woah, a three year old running for 7 hours? Unless he was running in circles, I have a vision of some very tired parents. . .

Jim, the environmental connotations of "green" in Moffett's poem hadn't occurred to me. The poem was written in '70/'71 I think. I could be wrong but I don't think that usage of the word was common back then. The poem came out of a writing prompt to "write a poem with a colour in each line," possible with the side-note that the colours didn't have to be used in realistic ways. It is interesting, I think, how some elements in the poem seem to rise naturally from the choice of colour - pond, frog, etc - while others like the stars and the oranges work against the nature connotations of the colour "green" and are, I think, all the more powerful because of that.

Art Durkee said...

I've spent most of my adult life combatting the expectations of my parents and teachers. Meaning, not living up to theirs, while trying to find out what I really wanted to do. That's been the major burden my entire adult life. I was always at the top of my class, usually either the upper 5 percent, or the upper 1 or 2 percent. Big frakking deal. If I'm an underachiever, if I am, it's because of feeling crippled by anxiety around the expectations I was being told I had to live up to: rather than doing it, I worried about not being able to do it. Recently, I've begun to turn that around, and just DO things. It may sound strange, but a lot of that pressure is off since my parents died. And I've started to learn new artforms since they died, and found them liberating, precisely because there is no internalized judgment about quality, no history of being told I could do better than I have, no memories of not quite being good enough at it. I mean, I have memories of my parents looking at my grade report from school, and saying I could have done even better, when in fact I couldn't have possibly gotten higher grades, because in most subjects there were no higher grades to be given—but it wasn't good enough! I've spent years overcoming the self-confidence and self-esteem issues that cascades from that alone.

But oh well. It's not crippling unless you let it become crippling. Which can be a battle, but a worthwhile one.

Jim Murdoch said...

Cy, this just proves a point I've made many times, probably in this very blog, that meaning has nothing much to do with authors, it's all to do with readers and what they bring to the work. Meaning changes as the generations roll by. I'm pretty sure if we asked the kid back then what it all meant he's just say something like he liked the sound of it and if you asked him now he might not even remember writing the damn thing.

And, Art, yeah, I guess that makes me an underachiever too. I've just watched that documentary on Ellison you mentioned on your blog and . . . okay he's got a few years on me . . . but when you look at what he's achieved it makes me wonder why I bother. And yer I suspect there's still an underachiever lurking on the inside of him. Still, despite the rotten childhood – which probably wasn't all that rotten – at least I'm not nearly as angry. We don't have the high school yearbook thing "the person most likely to…" but if we had I'm pretty sure that no one would have expected me to have been likely to have lived the life I have. And I count my parents in with them. I'm actually not sure what their expectations were. I know what their hopes were but that's a different thing,

Charles said...

The last true Prodigy Poet the world has seen was Arthur Rimbaud.


Jim Murdoch said...

And that was 150 years ago, Charles. Is it not time we're due another one?

Ewa Pihl GalleriAquarelle said...

I feel a little bit sad for you. You don't recognise a child of god. There are not so many during years, within music, painting, writing and and other creative professions. Don't analyse. Just enjoy, because they have something tremendous to learn us.. Just so simple. I just love them and are very grateful for their time on our earth.. Love and regards, from Ewa Pihl

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for your comment, Ewa, but there really is no reason to feel sorry for me. Everyone has limitations. Do I feel sorry for animals who can only see in black and white? Does the bat feel sorry about my limited hearing? I have come to recognise that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body (and I do mean spiritual in a broader sense than merely religious). I tried for years to develop one, to mimic one at least, hoping that one might miraculously appear if I spent enough time in spiritual pursuits but no, I don’t recognise a child of god here, and, even, for arguments sake, if I did, am I not also, with all my limitations, also a child of god? It’s a rhetorical question. I’m perfectly comfortable being who I am.

Elisabeth said...

I wondered how you'd respond here to the notion of your godlessness, Jim, and can only applaud your response. It reminds me of a question my husband as a boy used to throw at the brothers who once taught him. 'If God is all powerful can he make a stone he can't lift?'

You can't force belief in anything on anyone unless you are more powerful and indulge in propaganda and brainwashing. Otherwise thank goodness, we are free to choose our own beliefs, hopefully.

Thanks, Jim

Jim Murdoch said...

I was very struck by the phraseology in your last comment, Lis, the use of the word ‘godlessness’ in particular. It suggests loss to me, i.e. a godless person is a person less a god, an incomplete person in effect. It’s the kind of expression I would have used when I was a practicing Christian to describe those in the world who didn’t have a spiritual component to their lives. I can’t imagine an atheist thinking of himself as a godless person even though it’s semantically correct. It bothers me that I don’t have a term that expresses where I stand. I’m not an atheist nor am I an agnostic. I have just lost all interest in the question. I’m indifferent. I would say that I’m an indifferentist but neither the Catholic Church’s not Kant’s definitions suit me – I’m not a skeptic. The bottom line for me is that I don’t care if there’s a god. How about phlegmatist?

Elisabeth said...

Phlegmatist sounds alright to me, Jim. I used the word godless with my tongue firmly in my cheek, it's not always easy to detect these things over the internet. I'm with you on the notion that the 'less' in the word implies a loss when it could just as well be a gain.

I used to get terribly frustrated in my days working in a hospital to be called a paramedical. Why did my work need to be somehow measured alongside the medicos, as if social workers were lesser beings, along with physiotherapists and OTs and speech pathologists?

I too resent the need to call myself something whether it's a religion or an atheist or agnostic. I always write nil in the box on religion though I could just as well write n/a, for not applicable.

Helkost said...

Even if this article is really old, I'd like to add my two cents.

The point in common to many great writers / poets of the past centuries is, I believe, that they were left alone maturing; the talent for writing was probably there, but at those times education in Europe was mainly humanistic and very strict, and noone could avoid studying the classics to their core before they were allowed to move on. Rimbaud, for example, could write complex sonnets in latin by the time he was fourteen, and at that age he was still a diligent, even if extremely accomplished, student.

A prodigy that has not been brought up here is Giacomo Leopardi. As a teen, he knew perfectly Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and less fluently at least 4 other languages, and, starting from 14 years old, he produced several erudite books on astronomy, essays on history and other topics, verses, and three tragedies. While the first verses of note are from 1819 (he was 21) during his teens he perfected his language knowledge to a point that can hardly be seen in today's standards, even for adults. It seems he also ruined his health to achieve this, but that's another story.

Today there is a stupid tendence, I think, to forget that you need a certain amount of technical knowledge to write poems up to certain standards, before you even start looking for genius in them.
Poetry is not just about writing short verses in colums. It is also about musicality, rythm, syntax, brevity, all things that those poems, in my opinion, lack (and they lack originality as well).

It is true that you can achieve technical perfection without a single glimpse of originality, but I think it's hard to ever witness the opposite. And even if that's the case, we could probably ascribe it to "the incredible imagination of children", as in the poem posted in the comments. Not genius.

Helkost said...

by the way, my last comment was not referred to your poem, which I find much better than the others by a long shot, and at least inspired by life experience.

P.S. sorry for my awkward english, it is not my other language.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Helkost. Better late than never. It pleases me no end that old posts like this are still getting read and appreciated. Didn’t know about Giacomo Leopardi so that was interesting. I agree strongly with your comments re technical ability. When I think of prodigies the one that always jumps to mind is Lang Lang but having seen a couple of documentaries on him it’s obvious that this guy practices for hour every day and has done ever since he was a little boy. Yes, he has natural talent (which is why he’s so great) but natural talent is only a starting point. The same goes for artists like Picasso who was trained by his father.

I personally think poetry has lost its way. The man in the street can no longer tell what’s good or bad poetry. They know a good tune when they hear one and they know what they like when it comes to art and drama but poetry bemuses them which is why these kids can get away with what they’re doing. Although youth is naturally drawn to express itself poetically that doesn’t mean they’re any good at it. I read recently (forget where) that everyone’s a poet at eighteen but only a real poet keep going in his thirties and forties.

Glad you thought my poem was a cut above. I simply can’t view it objectively. To me it’ll always be wonderful because of what it reminds me of.

SweetonSylvia said...

To be a prodigy, it sounds like an exasperating silence, a temporal loneliness, a saunter in the bay, but it is a driving sentiment. To be young and brave and innate with words. I don't know if I could be considered a prodigy. I "published" my first poem at age nine in one of those rapid tinkering inhalations of a child anthology and then I was published again at seventeen with a community college contest. But is that enough? I am nineteen and have written over four hundred poems, thirty short stories, several efforts at a novel. And most likely, though, I will die too young and too sad to see if any of my works availed.

Although, it is a difficulty. Poetry at such a young age. Love is often the first thing we choose to explore. Love and nature. Sylvia Plath one said, "Nature is the gift given to the young poet, before they enter experience." This is, perhaps, true, nature is what we turn to, when we are young, when we are innocent, before life rises and devours us and sends us to the mingle of the noose. It wasn't until my sadness appeared, in its overwhelming fullness, at fifteen, that my writing began to develop a central, looming depth to it, a death, a diminishing. This is life, whether in physicality or in dream, reaching out to us, grabbing us at the haunches, reminding us we have only so long to be small and great- it is not the red tail of death, but the continuing distance from puberty that tracks us now, in our aspirations, in our kill.

I am nineteen now and I have entered the realm of write or die. Does that make a prodigy?

I will not wait until I am thirty to call myself a poet. Sylvia killed herself at thirty. What am I to do until then?

Jim Murdoch said...

I had also written over 400 poems by the time I was nineteen, Hannah. I regard #453 as my first adult poem. You can read it here. Last year I started posting my poems in a (roughly) chronological order from the age of eighteen on. I was eighteen in 1977 and have now posted ten years’ worth of poetry with a few words of commentary on each one. You may find reading through them helpful. I don’t imagine being a nineteen-year-old now is that different to being a nineteen-year-old in the seventies. I thought I was a genius back then, a bit too old to be a prodigy but I believed I was someone to be reckoned with. My poetry got published regularly in small press magazines and that only fuelled my ego. It took a long time for me to see myself for what I really was but I was impatient. Life was taking so long. Now I’m fifty-six. Now I’ve written nearly 1100 poems—I slowed down considerably over the years—and I’ve been comfortable thinking of myself as a poet for a long time. Despite having written five novels and two novellas I’m still not particularly comfortable calling myself a novelist. I can just about live with ‘writer’.

It’s interesting what you write about sadness. You might find my comments on poem #588 interesting. Sadness is always something I’ve been drawn to which is perhaps why Philip Larkin became my poetic hero early on. Larkin famously wrote, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” He only ever wrote some 244 poems. In later life he struggled to find the words. By the time he was giving up I was just getting started. I recommend him to you without reservation. You might want to start with ‘Home is so Sad’ from 1958 and ‘Sad Steps’ from 1968.

I understand the whole “write or die” mentality but I don’t romanticise writing these days. When I was your age I had limited experience but I wrote out of it and extrapolated the rest. Now I find I’ve mostly said everything I have to say. We have to accept our limits. Last year I wrote one poem although technically I wrote it at the end of 2014 and only decided it was finished in January of 2015. I may never write another poem again and that would upset me but I’ll still keep on because you never know. Between August 1991 and June 1994 I wrote no poetry at all. I thought I was done. I did not expect to write two novels back to back at the start of 1994. But that’s how the words manifested themselves and you go with the flow.

You, however, are not me. And you’re not Plath any more than I was Larkin. Having heroes to look up to is one thing but we have to find our own voice. Like all young poets I dabbled in different styles—Wilfred Owen was an early influence—but I was never happy being a mimic. If this is you, a “young woman, slightly sane but mostly mad, eyes locked upon the reflection that stares back” then I can relate totally. I was a young man like that as you see in my poem ‘The Drowning Man’ (#600). And if this is you your poems remind me of the boy I was at sixteen scrambling to become more than I saw in the mirror.

Thirty might seem a long time off when you’re nineteen. Now I find it hard to remember who I was when I was nineteen. He’s gone and he’s no great loss. He was something I had to get through to get to where I am now. But I still see his sad eyes looking at me from behind a face that’s older than I’d like it to be.

Thanks for your comment. Hope the above is of some help.

Ping services