The Poetry Of Childhood Memory

How sweet past is, no matter how wrong or how sad. How sweet is yesterday’s noise.

I wrote an essay ten years ago called “Memory As Muse,” and looking back at it today I am struck by the fact that in the poems I write about childhood now the mood has changed from one of a rather happy nostalgia (“Memory as Muse”) to a more realistic, or at least a gloomier, assessment of my own childhood and how it affects me as a writer (“Yesterday’s Noise”). Let me illustrate with a poem called “An Old Song,” from my most recent book.


How loyal our childhood demons are, growing old with us in the same house like servants who season the meat with bitterness, like jailers who rattle the keys that lock us in or lock us out.

Though we go on with our lives, though the years pile up like snow against the door, still our demons stare at us from the depths of mirrors or from the new faces across a table.

And no matter what voice they choose, what language they speak, the message is always the same. They ask “Why can’t you do anything right?” They say “We just don’t love you anymore.”

As A.S. Byatt said about herself in an interview: “I was no good at being a child.” My mother told me that even as a baby I would lie screaming in the crib, clearly terrified of the dust motes that could be seen circling in the sun, as if they were a cloud of insects that were about to swarm and bite me. By the time I was five or six, I had a series of facial tics so virulent that I still can’t do the mouth exercises my dentist recommends for fear I won’t be able to stop doing them. I’m afraid they’ll take hold like the compulsive habits of childhood that led my second-grade teacher to send me from the room until I could, as she put it, control my own face. There was the isolating year (sixth grade) of being the one child nobody would play with, the appointed victim, and there was the even more isolating year (fourth grade) of being, alas, one of the victimizers. There was my shadowy room at bedtime, at the end of a dark hallway, and, until some worried psychologist intervened, no night light allowed.

I thought about calling my last book Only Child because something about that condition seemed to define not only me, but possibly writers in general who sit at their desks, necessarily alone, for much of the time. In some ways, of course, it defines all of us, born alone, dying alone, alone in our skins no matter how close we seem to be to others. I tried to capture my particular loneliness as a child, click great website my difficulty in making friends, my search for approval, in what I thought would be the title poem of that book:

Only Child

Sister to no one, I watched the children next door quarrel and make up in a code I never learned to break.

Go Play! my mother told me. Play! said the aunts, their heads all nodding on their stems, a family of rampant flowers

and I a single shoot. At night I dreamed I was a twin the way my two hands, my eyes, my feet were twinned. I married young.

In the fractured light of memory–that place of blinding sun or shade, I stand waiting on the concrete stoop for my own children to find me.

At a reading I gave before a group of Maryland PEN women last year, someone who had clearly not read beyond the tables of contents of my books introduced me as a writer of light verse. I remember thinking in a panic that I hardly had a single light poem to read to those expectant faces, waiting to be amused. Did I have such an unhappy life, then–wife, mother, grandmother, with woods to walk in, books to read, good friends, even a supportive editor?

I am, in fact, a more or less happy adult, suffering, thank God, from no more than the usual griefs age brings. But I think my poems are colored not only by a possibly somber genetic temperament, but also by my failure at childhood, even when I am not writing about childhood per se. And more and more, as I grow older, those memories themselves insist upon inserting themselves into my work. Perhaps it is the very way our childhoods change in what I called “the fractured light of memory” that make them such an inexhaustible source of poetry. For me, it is like the inexhaustible subject of the seasons that can be seen in the changeable light of the sun, or the versatile light of the imagination, as benign or malevolent or indifferent, depending upon a particular poet’s vision at a particular moment.

I want to reflect a little then on those poems we fish up from the depths of our childhoods. And for any teachers reading this, I want to suggest that assigning poems to student writers that grow out of their childhoods can produce unusually good results, opening up those frozen ponds with what Kafka called the axe of poetry.

Baudelaire says that “genius is childhood recalled at will.” I had a 19-year-old student once who was not a genius but who complained that he couldn’t write about anything except his childhood. Unfortunately, his memory was short, and as a result, all of his poems were set in junior high school. He had taken my course, he told me, in order to find new subjects. I admit that at first glance junior high doesn’t seem the most fertile territory for poems to grow in. On the other hand, insecurity, awakening sexuality, fear of failure–many of the great subjects do exist there. It occurred to me that when I was 19, what I usually wrote about were old age and death. Only in my middle years did I start looking back into my own past for the subjects of poems. This started me wondering about the poetry of memory more information in general. Did other poets, unlike my young student, come to this subject relatively late, as I had? As I looked rather casually and unscientifically through the books on my shelves, it did seem to me that when poets in their twenties and thirties wrote about children, it was usually their own children that concerned them, but when they were in their late forties or fifties or sixties, the children they wrote about tended to be themselves.

Donald Justice, in an interview with The Missouri Review, gave as good an explanation of this as anyone. He said, “In the poems I have been thinking of and writing the last few years, I have grown aware that childhood is a subject somehow available to me all over again. The perspective of time and distance alter substance somewhat, and so it is possible to think freshly of things that were once familiar and ordinary, as if they had become strange again. I don’t know whether this is true of everybody’s experience, but at a certain point childhood seems mythical once more. It did to start with, and it does suddenly again.”

There are, first of all, what I call “Poems of the Happy Childhood,” Donald Justice’s own poem “The Poet At Seven” among them. But for poets less skilled than Justice, there is a danger to such poems, for they can stray across the unmarked but mined border into sentimentality and become dishonest, wishful sort of recollections. When they are working well, however, these “Poems of the Happy Childhood” reflect the Wordsworthian idea that we are born “trailing clouds of glory” and that as we grow older we are progressively despiritualized. Even earlier than Wordsworth, in the mid-17th century, Henry Vaughan anticipated these ideas in his poem, “The Retreat.”

I mention Wordsworth and Vaughan because in looking back over the centuries at the work of earlier poets, I find more rarely than I expected poems that deal with childhood at all. Their poems are the exceptions, as are Shakespeare’s 30th Sonnet and Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears.” Perhaps it wasn’t until after Freud that people started to delve routinely into their own pasts. But nostalgia per se was not so rare, and in a book called The Uses Of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry, the English critic Laurence Lerner comes up with an interesting theory. After examining pastoral poetry from classical antiquity on, he concludes that pastoral poems express the longing of the poets to return to a childhood arcadia, and that in fact what they longed to return to was childhood itself. He then takes his theory a step further and postulates that the reason poets longed for childhood is simply that they had lost it. He writes, “The list is varied of those who learned to sing of what they loved by losing it….Is that what singing is? Is nostalgia the basis not only of pastoral but of other art too?” Or as Bob Hass puts it in his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas,” “All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.”

But though there are some left who think of childhood as a lost arcadia, for the most part Freud changed all of that.

We have in more recent times the idea of poetry as a revelation of the self to the self, or as Marge Perloff put it when describing the poems of Seamus Heaney, “Poetry as a dig.”

The sort of poems this kind of digging often provides are almost the opposite of “Poems of the Happy Childhood,” and they reflect a viewpoint that is closer to the childhood poems I seem to be writing lately. In fact, a poem like “Autobiographia Literaria” by Frank O’Hara actually consoles the adult by making him remember, albeit with irony in O’Hara’s case, how much more unpleasant it was to be a child. If the poetry of memory can console, it can also expiate. In his well-known poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” Robert Hayden not only recreates the past but reexamines his behavior there and finds it wanting. The poem itself becomes an apology for his behavior as a boy, and the act of writing becomes an act of repentance.

If you can’t expiate the past, however, you can always revise it–and in various, and occasionally unorthodox, ways. Donald Justice in the poem “childhood” runs a list of footnotes opposite his poem, explaining and clarifying. Mark Strand in “The Untelling” reenters the childhood scene as an adult and warns the participants of what is to occur in the future.

Probably the most ambitious thing a poem of childhood memory can accomplish is the Proustian task of somehow freeing us from time itself. Proust is perfectly happy to use random, seemingly unimportant memory sensations as long as they have the power to transport him backwards. When he tastes his madeleine, moments of the past come rushing back, and he is transported to a plane of being on which a kind of immortality is granted. We can grasp for a moment what we can never normally get hold of–a bit of time in its pure state. It is not just that this somehow lasts forever, the way we hope the printed word will last, but that it can free us from the fear of death. To quote Proust: “A minute emancipated from the temporal order had recreated in us for its apprehension the man emancipated from the temporal order.” Proust accomplished his journey to the past via the sense of taste, but any sense or combination of senses will do. In my poem “PM/AM,” I used the sense of hearing in the first stanza and a combination of sight and touch in the second. Here mobile strike hack cheats is the second:


The child gets up on the wrong side of the bed. There are splinters of cold light on the floor, and when she frowns the frown freezes on her face as her mother has warned her it would. When she puts her elbows roughly on the table her father says: you got up on the wrong side of the bed; and there is suddenly a cold river of spilled milk. These gestures are merely formal, small stitches in the tapestry of a childhood she will remember as nearly happy. Outside the snow begins again, ordinary weather blurring the landscape between that time and this, as she swings her cold legs over the side of the bed.

But did I really say: “A childhood she will remember as nearly happy”? Whom are you to believe, the poet who wrote that poem years ago or the poet who wrote “An Old Song”? As you see, the past can be reinterpreted, the past can be revised, and the past can also be invented. Sometimes, in fact, one invents memories without even meaning to. In a poem of mine called “The One-Way Mirror Back,” I acknowledge this by admitting: “What I remember hardly happened; what they say happened I hardly remember.” Or as Bill Matthews put it in his poem “Our Strange and Lovable Weather”-

…any place lies about its weather, just as we lie about our childhoods, and for the same reason: we can’t say surely what we’ve undergone and need to know, and need to know.

This “need to know” runs very deep and is one of the things that fuels the poems we write about our childhoods.

But the simplest, the most basic thing such poems provide are the memories themselves, the memories for their own sakes. Here is the third stanza of Charles Simic’s poem “Ballad”: “Screendoor screeching in the wind/ Mother hobble-gobble baking apples/ Wooden spoons dancing, ah the idyllic life of wooden spoons/ I need a table to spread these memories on.” The poem itself, then, can become such a table, a table to simply spread our memories on.

Looking back at some of my own memories, I sometimes think I was never a child at all, but a lonely woman camouflaged in a child’s body. I am probably more childlike now. At least I hope so.

One of the most distinguished contemporary poets, Linda Pastan has published eight volumes of poetry–A Perfect Circle of Sun, Aspects of Eve, The Five Stages of Grief, Waiting for My Life, PM/AM: New and Selected Poems, A Fraction of Darkness, The Imperfect Paradise, and Heroes in Disguise. Her poetry has also appeared in a wide range of publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Georgia Review, Antaeus, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Grand Street, and Paris Review.