Philip Larkin never had any, Jack Gilbert never had any, Dylan Thomas never had any—but for each of these world-class poets, children have inspired some of their best writing. Which, when you think about it, makes sense, for a poem is, in a way, a kind of child. When a poet sets out to convey some thought or feeling, he is almost always writing for someone not present, some reader within whom, at some future time, he hopes to provoke a similar thought or feeling. From an unlikely palette of letters and words, he constructs, if he's any good, something that—though it survive him—will yet carry with it some part of him, some image or notion that once, uniquely, illuminated his world. It is a kind of immortality. So, too, our children. Small wonder then that poets look upon them as natural subjects for their verse.
Gilbert, not surprisingly, says it most clearly. In the aptly named “Trying to Have Something Left Over,” he writes,
Often I took care of the baby while she did
housework. Changing him and making him laugh.
I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburgh and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.
Of course all of us, to one degree or another, yearn for what Gilbert seeks here, the idea that some part of us might live on. And, I suspect, it accounts at least in part for the pleasure we take in children, the joy I feel when I sit at Miss Rosemary's desk and watch the future gambol across the library floor. But I think there is more to it as well. The innocent, unself-conscious, unworried and unhurried lives of children show us, remind us, just how rich our own lives could (and can) be. So too poetry.
On April 22, as part of the library's annual celebration of National Poetry Month, I will host a discussion of poetry about children. You can access a copy of the poems we'll be talking about online at http://www.tcfl.org/poetryaboutchildren, or you can just pick up a set the next time you stop by the library. This year too we will have an open mike night at the Easton library. On April 11, people will have the chance to share their favorite poetry (their own or someone else's) with the rest of the world. I think it says something about us as a people that we love children, that we love poetry, that we come to open mike nights and read and share verse. I think it says something essential and something good.