I remember the girl next door who was a few years younger than me. One day she wanted to play and I found that I knew a word she didn’t: pretend.
“Let’s be-say,” she said.
I don’t remember how old she was. Just old enough to understand pretending, but not old enough to know the word. And I was just old enough to know that “be-say” was clever, but wrong. For some reason it has stuck with me all these years. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I had witnessed how language evolves: we build with the tools at hand, combining and adapting them to new purposes and meanings. And, at least at first, before an expression is either rejected as incorrect (”No, you mean ‘pretend.’”) or it becomes a cliché — the result is poetry.
Hannah Gamble is a poet who observed this in some detail. In “The Average Fourth Grader is a Better Poet Than You (and Me Too)” she gives examples of wonderful lines and turns of phrase written by students in grades three through six, then compares these to the poetry of middle schoolers and high schoolers. The younger students, though less mature and less educated, wrote with greater originality of expression. For example,
The owls of midnight hoot like me
shutting the door to nothing.
Older students tend to be more conventional in their thoughts and word choice:
Snacking on this and that
my friends and I keep the party going
even when it is over
“Sad times,” Gamble writes.
By middle school/high school, the average student has learned how normal people talk. The resulting language is underwhelming and predictable—the safe regurgitations of a thoroughly socialized consciousness.
“While the average older student’s poems are heavy with allegiance to a limited view of reality, the average younger writer’s vision of the world is nimble and surprising — bizarre, yet true.
We’ve all been taught that becoming a good poet (or a good writer of any kind) involves a lot of learning, a lot of work. That’s true. It really does. But it also involves a fair amount of unlearning — balancing your hard-won knowledge, experience, and skill with an ability to pretend — to be-say — that you are seeing and hearing and speaking for the first time.
(h/t Rachael Stanford)