Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience

I am deeply indebted to the academic and personal kindness and mentoring afforded me during my undergraduate education by one of my English professors, Dr. Nancy Moore.

Dr. Moore combined an admirable ability to challenge students academically while also being sincerely supportive and encouraging. I probably did not need or even deserve her praise, but Dr. Moore always made me feel like a successful student, budding scholar, and most of all, credible writer.

She was one of the first people to treat me as a poet, inviting me to read and share my work in various settings.

But I also recall that she regularly chided me about my literary affections, warning me that I would grow out of some of my favorite authors. Part of that rested on one of my proclivities for authors who dwelled on innocence, such as J.D. Salinger and e.e. cummings.

While my literary tastes have in fact changed and even matured (in the sense that my critical sensibilities are sharper as I have aged), as I am staring down the barrel of turning 60, I remain deeply drawn still to the poetry of cummings, even as my discomfort with him as a person has grown with each biography I read.

This blog post title refers directly to William Blake’s major poetry collection that remains also a favorite of mine since it captures why these works still resonate with me; the tension between innocence/youth and experience/maturity fascinates me since both phases of life are often simultaneously idealized and criticized.

And, of course, it is an existential fact of being human that we experience both phases as well as live through the transition in ways that are often difficult.

I have recently written about the difficulties of physical decline as I age, and that experience sits beside major life changes and being an active grandfather for a five-year-old girl and three-year-old boy.

So yesterday, while spending a few hours with my grand-daughter after picking her up from school before taking her back to her father, I was struck by one of those sudden realizations that she is securely into childhood, no longer any sort of baby. She is very bright, energetic, incredibly loving, and distinctly sensitive in the ways that suggest she has inherited some of the anxiety that runs through my side of the family.

My grand-children have spent their lives navigating fractured families, and she has come to see the world through “whose week is it?” This is sad, but it also shows how she is coming to know the complexity of the world, how she is experiencing the transition from innocence to experience even at the tender age of five.

As our afternoon unfolded, the time together was ripe with the tensions of being a small child in the harsh reality of living. We saw a homeless man sitting by the highway on our way to dinner. At the restaurant, a woman making balloon animals gave her a balloon butterfly that filled her with dread over the probability that the balloons would burst.

I took a picture of her with the balloon butterfly:

balloon butterfly sky

Ad even a video of her talking about navigating the fear of the balloon popping. Eventually, I wrote a new poem, a theory of balloons, which is heavily influenced by [in Just-] by cummings.

On the video, my grand-daughter explains her theory of balloons (slightly edited in the poem):

balloons pop if there’s something spiky
then you cry & cry & then you get one later
i’ve got a balloon butterfly
& i’m never going to pop it
sometimes i’m going to pop it
& that’s okay i’m going to stop thinking about it

Listening to my grand-daughter and thinking about the balloon woman, I was immediately reminded of cummings and [in Just-], which still represents my key moment in life when I made the turn toward English student and writer.

I left high school only modestly drawn to so-called literature, even as I was a voracious reader of science fiction and comic books. I was tepid on poetry and had written some, but it wasn’t until a speech class in my first year of college when discussing this poem by cummings really struck me.

Unlike many poems by cummings, this one is very accessible and powerful in its seeming simplicity. But it also is an effective glimpse into the tension between innocence (the children playing in the poem) and the allure of the balloonman (a real-world Pied Piper and Pan hyrbid that represents the allure of maturity, including budding sexuality).

But I had never, I think, really considered the genius of using the balloon symbolically in the poem until my impromptu philosophical moments with my grand-daughter and the complete accident of her being given a balloon butterfly.

Like a ballon, like a butterfly, our humanity is very frail and fleeting, regardless of where we are on the continuum from innocence to experience.

And as I worked on the poem, blending things that really happened with my own fabrications for effect, I became more and more aware of the bond between my frailty of aging and my grand-daughter’s frailty of being just a child.

She is tiny and very thin, but she also has the tenderest of hearts.

Finding form is always a challenge of poetry, but I also feel the pressure of making sure every poem ends some way that is fulfilling without stooping to anything heavy-handed.

Satisfying to me at least, the last section pulls together an image of heaviness and lightness to combine with the tension of innocence (my grand-daughter) and experience (me) as I carried her inside after our afternoon together:

she falls asleep as we drive
the balloon butterfly clinging
to her tiny child’s arm
too beautiful & terribly frail
i carry her in sleep-heavy in my arms
like a balloon or a butterfly

This morning when I checked on her, I also asked if her balloon butterfly had survived the night.

I am relieved to find out that it has as I recall her sleep-heavy in my arms, completely dependent on my care in that moment, this old man who loves her.