Grist: The Journal for Writers, a new national literary annual arising with support from the creative writing program at the University of Tennessee, features world class fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, along with interviews with renowned writers, and essays about craft. Grist is distinguished from other journals by a commitment to exploring the nuances of the writer’s occupation. Its pages invite questions regarding the author’s choice of genre, form, and point-of-view, as well as facilitating discussions of those elusive terms ‘aesthetics’ and ‘voice.’ There are plenty of literary journals in the world, as well as a fair number of magazines devoted to aspects of craft, but no publication that we know of blends the two like Grist.
Call for Essays: Grist
Grist is seeking essays on craft and poetics, in any genre, and personal essays that focus on a specific writer’s work.
Send your best prose to firstname.lastname@example.org in rich text or doc format (but not docx) by Dec 30, 2009.
John Hurt Fisher Research Assistant, and
Non-Fiction Editor, Grist: The Journal for Writers
Department of English
301 McClung Tower
University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Knoxville, TN 37996-0430
Beginner’s Mind, Child’s Mind by Julia B. Levine
Every poet begins as a child, and later returns to some of the essential qualities of a child’s mind, in order to enter the strange realm of language and thought that we recognize as poetry. Watch a playground at recess: so many of a poet’s concerns with rhythm, sound, intensity, justice, narrative, are worked out there with great seriousness. If there is nowhere else to start a poem, there is always this: a rapt, attuned, and steady gaze, a passionate interest in sensate experience, an intense and quirky absorption in the negotiation of play within a rule-bound context.
One of the greatest writers on the development of children’s thought was the Swiss epistemologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget began his study by obsessively recording his own children, and later grandchildren, in minute detail from the moment of their birth through to early adulthood. Over decades of careful observation, he came to believe that human thought develops through universal, recognizable stages. Beginning with mental concepts organized on a totally somatic level (sensorimotor thought), Piaget hypothesized that infant-thought gives way to the cognition of preschoolers. Referred to as preoperational thinking, Piaget believed that very young children organized their ideas in predictably animistic, magical ways. According to Piaget, the next stage of thought evolves through the more rule-bound, but still concrete thinking of latency age children, into the more rational abstract patterns we associate with later adolescent and adult cognition.
Piaget not only concluded that the developmental stages he observed are present universally and predictably in all children, but he also believed that the earliest , most “primitive” ways we understand the world never disappear, but remain embedded within us throughout our lives. In essence, we all carry each one of these early stages of cognitive organization deep within us, and access these modes in times of stress or dream or reverie. That is, beside the formal, rational thought we rely on everyday, every adult also retains the body-thought of an infant, the magical thinking of a preschool child, and the concrete beliefs of a latency-age child. We can move through these various modes of earlier and later organization. This movement in and out of earlier modes of language and thought may be one of the more important underpinnings of how poetry can evoke both a sense of the strange and familiar.
After all, doesn’t a good poem “think” in and out of these earliest modes of thought?
Like a child, poems often speak best, not through the rhetoric of abstract concepts of language, but through actions, verbs, even sound patterns. The good poem exists in a realm of rhythmic sensations and feelings that are more like the fluent synesthesia of infancy, than the categorical assignment of ideas and perceptions familiar to adults.
Children’s play, if watched carefully, is often alive with brilliant metaphors for translating what can be felt and sensed into verbs. Ask a toddler how she feels about her new baby brother and she may say very little, but then walk over to the pond and begin throwing in stones, singing, Night, night! Or later, after denying she is mad at her parents for bringing the little intruder home, she may hide the baby’s beloved toy lamb so that he cannot take his nap, smiling as she watches the adults scramble madly around the house looking for his toy.
Poets, like children, often use words in an idiosyncratic way that transforms language and thought. I remember burying a dead baby bird, and my eldest crouching beside me to ask, How will it learn to fly now? This is the realm of both the poem and the beginning mind: the place where form and subject is not yet shaped; where the world is nearly untouched and possible.
Children spend a great amount of their childhood inside a kind of magical animism, believing that everything around them is alive and therefore possesses desire and feelings. They are preoccupied with translating what is communicated from the animate and inanimate world. They develop magical theories that likely constitute the origin of myth and fable as the world of thought reinvents itself through each individual childhood. I remember my middle child out “gardening” with me one day, and sorting the worms that “liked” her, from the ones that didn’t. When I asked how she knew one from the other, she picked a worm up and showed me how it curled around her wrist, “holding on tight.” And doesn’t the poem do this: create a kind of magical boundary between what feels true to us, and what is consensual fact, and then elaborate from within that newly invented belief system?
So whom are we talking about when we refer to children? Do we mean the children that we watch around us? Or the one that we access from the inside out? The poetic reverie, and therefore the poem, does not fully discriminate between the two. If we believe Piaget, the experiences of the children around us resonate with the very structure of our own thought and memory. To write about children, and often, to write at all, is to reach through the various stratospheric layers of our own cognitive organization and development, back to where we were beginners.
Beginners know they have a lot to learn. Children expect to fail and make mistakes, and most of the time they are not even aware that they have made an error: they are simply so captured by the process of whatever they are doing, whether it is learning or trying out the sixty-fifth thing you can do with a hammock besides lie in it, that this trial and error process seems like play. And what more can a poem expect from the poet, than to enter the beginner’s suspension of performance, where the poet plays and fails, and then plays with that failure, again and again and again, unraveling all rational modes of thought back into personal myth, intuitive truths, and body knowledge, until someone calls her in for dinner?