A daughter's poetry is atough editing job

2012-06-11 00:00

I’ve got a poem I’d like you to look at,” nine-year-old Lael said softly, handing me a smudged sheaf of rose-petalled paper.

Tears roll

Down my face

Ass I stroll

A shrill call

Brings me


Slowing the tears


I stared at the paper for a few seconds, while my parenting instincts confettied around in conflict:. I wanted my children to write poetry. I did not want my children to view poetry as a blotting paper for their emotions. I wanted to be gentle and kind. I also wanted to be a faithful editor.

And, I had a suspicion that the shrill call that repressed tears was mine, and so I had to proceed carefully.

“It has potential,” I ventured gently. “I like the rhyme,” I added kindly. “But Lael, I do find that poetry that is about yourself being sad, doesn’t really work. So try not be all ‘me, me, me, sad, sad, sad’ in your poetry. Try write about others.”

Lael returned in a few minutes and handed me the same piece of paper, with a few words crossed out:

Tears roll

Down her face

Ass she strolls

A shrill call

Brings her


Slowing the tears


“Nice changes, Lael.” I was determined not to crush her. “But when I said don’t write about your sadness, I meant poems about sadness are very difficult to write without becoming self-involved. You know?”

Lael stared at me blankly. Was my shrill call repressing her emotions again?

She went off to her bedroom and returned a few minutes later, with a new, rose-petalled sheaf.

The birds sound the call

Spring has come!

Spring has come!

The bees are buzzing

Towels fuzzing

On the washing line

The birds are sing-

Ing. Isn’t fine.

Flowers bloom

Babys new from

The woom airing

Luxioly. The birds

Sound the call

Spring is done!

Spring is done!

Well that was certainly cheerful. It reminded me of the children’s song, “I’ve got a smile on my dial, I’ve got a smile on my dial, I’ve got a smile on my dial,” that you have to sing loudly and repetitively as you jangle the tambourine. How could I point this out while protecting her fragile, poet self-esteem?

“Nice Lael,” I said, “I like some of these images — like towels fuzzing.” But it’s not that I’m saying that you can’t write sad poetry. Some people do it very well. It’s just it mustn’t be ‘wishy, washy, splat my emotions, splat’. I think it was Robert Frost who said, every sad poem should have an element of humour and every humorous poem an element of sadness. Like that Wendy Cope poem about socks being loners. It’s a funny poem about socks losing their partners on washdays, but at the same time it’s communicating a sad point, that some people can’t live in pairs.”

I watched her face for those rolling tears, and then gently asked if she had any other poetry to show me. Lael went off to ruffle through her collection and I sat back to ponder. How was she coping? Was it kinder just to say, “that’s lovely”, and to let her poetry get relegated to the growing slosh-pile of undisciplined self-expression?

“I just have this one,” she came back and quietly handed me a piece of paper. “But when I gave it to to you a few months ago, you told me to chuck it in the bin.”

Oh no. How could I have said that? Whatever steps forward I had taken today, I had rewound weeks ago. She must be crushed, broken, the shell of the nine-year-old that she could be.

I had been working myself up to asking her if I could use her poetry in an article on poetry-writing. But there was no hope now. She would be too ashamed.

“Lael,” I said, “I really understand if you don’t want me to, but I was hoping to use some of your poetry as illustrations in an article.”

How would her battered, little heart respond?

“Ok,” Lael said, tapping her pen on her desk. “You’ll just need to give me half of whatever you earn.”

• Sarah Groves is a Pietermaritzburg freelance writer

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