Thursday, 16 September 2010

Elocution in Hong Kong: the making of a poem

I wrote A Small Girl Swinging about twenty years ago and it found its way into a number of children's anthologies. It wasn't in fact written especially for children, but about childhood. There was a playground behind the garden where we lived. From upstairs we could just about see some of it so the children were allowed to play there, once they were old enough, provided there were other children about.

This is the poem:

A Small Girl Swinging

When first they pushed me
    I was very scared.
My tummy jiggled. I was

The second time was higher
    And my ears
Were cold of whisperings
    Of tiny fears.

The third time it was HIGH,
    My teeth on edge.
My heart leapt off the bedroom

The fourth time, Oh the fourth time
    It was mad.
My skirt flew off the world
    And I was glad.

No one's pushing now,
    My ears are ringing.
Who'll see across the park
    A small girl swinging?

Who'll hear across the park
    Her mother calling,
And everywhere her shadows
    Rising, falling?

A poem is a combination of complex feelings surfacing through language into form. The poet doesn't know all the feelings, only some of them, but can hear the faint white noise of echoes of meaning beyond.

In this poem, that I remember well, I was writing about my own sense of excitement and fear on a high swing (the teeth on edge were mine); the sensation of pushing one's own children on a swing, seeing their fear and excitement; and the concern for the child seen in a playground from an upstairs window. There was also the imagined fear of being abandoned by one's parents in a playground. You look down from the swing and they're gone! No longer pushing. The sense of excitement transfers into adulthood - I think this is unavoidable as the writer is an adult - and takes on a faint erotic edge (part of the white noise). I became aware of that as I wrote the verses, not before. Something heady about it all - as there is in swinging as a child too, of course. Being aware of it I did not think of it as a children's poem, as such. It reminded me of Blakes's Nurse's Songs. This from the Songs of Innocence:


When the voices of children are heard on the green,
  And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
  And everything else is still.
"Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
  And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away,
  Till the morning appears in the skies."

"No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
  And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
  And the hills are all covered with sheep."
"Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
  And then go home to bed."
The little ones leaped, and shouted, and laughed,
  And all the hills echoed.

and this from The Songs of Experience


When voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

I knew these poems very well and had also finished a small painting on board (I still have it, one of the few) with an inscription from the second poem, the first line, as in both poems. They were more than white noise in the head: they were a distinct shape.

My poem was in effect pitched between innocence and experience. One of the extraordinary qualities of Blake's best poetry is the ability to see extremes and set them glowing. Poetry for me has always been about complexity: the innocence and experience of language. That is what I wanted anyway, what I still want.

The reading above is for pronunciation only of course. It makes no attempt at interpretation and that in itself makes it interesting. The poem will be read by a young girl whose mother wrote to me asking for clues on speaking it.

I do, however, seem to hear the enunciation man saying 'shirt' instead of 'skirt'.


Ruth said...

Today I played with a little girl on a swing. She drops out of her wheelchair and taps along the floor using her hands until she grasps the reality of the swing. She plays with speeds, the current of the wind against her face. Sudden abrupt stoppages and re-starts. She is carefree, experimental, eclectic- honing phrases by setting something in motion , then interupting that. Nothing she likes more than spinning at incredible speed, then backing off and feeling the weight of her body plummet down onto the mat as the swing continues to agitate like a boat in choppy water. This makes her laugh and is a spit in the face to all the people who try to babyfie her- even though she is nine yrs old- because she is disabled and blind. She will have none of that. She articulates the swing into complex and contradictory pronouncements.

It reminds me of what you are saying about the complexity that can't be reduced to any one state in a poem.

I think that the play of childhood that Blake sets in motion comes about through the expectation and the break in the rhyming outcome that the poem plays out- like the swinging going one way and then the other, ricochetting on its own thread, playing with its own rhythm. Like when Blake says Sheep and Leaped (unstead of leapt) in the first poem as a kind of reckless twisting of the string. Then that word Echoed- just left lingering at the end of the poem, winding and unwinding. In the second poem there is Play as approximating Dale and Pale but not quite- a mis-fit by way of this veering quite close to something- then rebounding off as a possible dissonance. I think this is the play that the structure of the poem in a way performs just as it depicts the play of childhood across a constructed distance from adult to child.

The device is the same in child's play and in the poem. And in your poem which is slighlty sinister-a feeling in my digestion that is not quite settling- a sense of heavinness and going down-of being out of sync with the swing and the pusher-the tentative detachment that that brings- but then that mad lightness twinned with it.
A pouring into something that is the very opposite- this curiosity within and out of what is happening. In the way things feel. The elation and fear actually inhabited even as the body itself seems to splinter into the extremes of up/down motion.

Ruth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom said...

Hi George,

I was the guy who produced the YouTube pronunciation guide. There will be several dozen children reading your poem at the Hong Kong Speech Festival this Autumn.

My local colleague remains a little confused about whose perspective the poem is based around? The child or mother?

Also, is your name pronounced correctly? I was unsure what you meant in the final paragraph of this blog entry.

Tom said...

Seems 'skirt' was deliberately toned down to 'shirt':

George S said...

Thanks, Tom. Just received your comments. Thank you for doing the pronunciation guide.

As I say in the post I never thought of this as a poem for children and have always been a little surprised to see it in children's anthologies.

Essentially, the poem is from the remembered child's perspective, voicing the fears of the child as recalled / imagined / experienced or partly realised in adulthood. Really then, it is an adult poem, written from the persepctive of someone who knows the experience of the skirt flying off the world. To a child that signifies one thing, to an adult something else. In the poem it is all foreshadowing. Not of anything in particular, just of the nature of the world.

What might be best imagined, as far as the local teachers are concerned, is the adult recalling the experience of the playground while watching a daughter from a distance. The adult has to make himself / herself into a child in the imagination though they cannot help being adult. So, to put it briefly and simply, it is best to speak the poem as a child and leave the rest to the audience. Children should just say it straight.

Interesting that shirt replaces skirt in the version you point to. It shows that the adults have a vague sense that the voice isn't firmly fixed in childhood. But then I never said it was.

Pronounce the name as Surtees.

chi kwan said...

Marianna said:
My daughter has to read your poem at the Hong Kong Speech Festival. For the last two paragraphs which is about no one is pushing, as you said it's about being abandoned by one's parents in the playground. So do you think she should use a sad tone to present this part? Or what kind of feeling she should use?