Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

by krstaten

Or at least a better poet?

So here’s the thing: I spend a lot of time on Tumblr. Some could probably argue that I spend a little bit too much time on Tumblr. Those people would probably have a valid point, considering the fact that while I do follow some great writing and publishing blogs, most of my time there is spent reblogging cat videos which just isn’t very productive.

Nonetheless, with the writing and publishing blogs I follow, it’s inevitable that I occasionally come across posts that are incredibly useful in my writing life. One such post turned out to be fantastic content from PoetryFoundation.org, a web site that I really should start paying as much attention to as I do to Tumblr.

This particular post really caught my attention, because it claimed that the average fourth grader is a better poet than I am.

Which is offensive. I’ve been writing poetry for twelve years. Which is a speck, really, compared to many poets, but quite frankly I have been writing poetry for longer than the average fourth grader has been alive, and surely I’ve learned more about poetry than they have.

Which, as it turns out, may actually be my problem. An excerpt from the article linked above:

Here are some lines written by students in grades 3rd-6th:

    “The life of my heart is crimson.”

    [Writing about a family member’s recent death:]

    “My brother went down/ to the river
    and put dirt on.”

    “Peace be a song,
    silver pool of sadness”

    “Away went a dull winter wind
    that rocked harshly, and bent you said,
    ‘Father, father’.”

    [Writing about a terminal illness:]

    “I am feeling burdened
    and I taste milk……
    I mumble, ‘Please,
    please run away.’
    But it lives where I live.”

    “The owls of midnight hoot like me
    shutting the door to nothing.”

    [Writing about life as a movie:]

    “The choir enters, and the director screams
    ‘Sing with more terror!!!’”

    […]

These young writers are addressing subjects that still obsess poets fifty years older: sadness, death, love, responsibility, aging, family, loneliness, and refuge…and they are addressing these subjects in language that is new, and thus has the power to emotionally effect a well-seasoned (/jaded) reader. The average fourth grader is able to do this because she hasn’t been alive long enough to know how to do it (and by “it” I mean talk about the world) any other way.

I don’t want to just rehash what Hannah Gamble, the author of that article, has already said, so I’ll spare you an analysis of the poetry of children. It got me thinking, though, about how language works, and the ways in which we limit it without even realizing it. And I wonder: would it be possible to unlearn the way we think language is supposed to be used?

I find myself asking when I write now, “If I had no idea how people usually talked about the subject I’m writing about, what would I say?”

Gamble writes, “The poet’s job is to forget how to do it.” Is that possible? Or is the conscious awareness we already have of how people talk about the world going to invade our writing no matter how hard we try to set it aside?

Gamble adds:

Last year I spent every Saturday tutoring an extremely undersocialized kid in vocab. When I taught her the word blandishments (“to flatter, coax, sweet-talk, appeal to”) she wrote this sentence: “The blandishments of the sugar flowers made the cake so much more inviting.”

This makes me think that maybe, after all, it’s not forgetting that matters. I don’t think we truly can “forget” all of the patterns of speech that have been ingrained in us our whole lives. But maybe instead of forgetting–which at best can only truly be pretending not to know anymore–all we really need to do is recognize the broader possibilities of language and expand our understanding of the way words can be used. If we can’t unlearn language, the next best thing is to learn it in new ways, and let the world inform our understanding.

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