One of my favorite opening lines in poetry is from Christopher Buckley's "Old News: Poem on a Birthday," which begins, "When it came down to it, I loved the '50s." The first six words indicate that the speaker is making a compromise, and given our tangled memory of the 1950s -- Happy Days and Marilyn Monroe juxtaposed with the Little Rock Nine and sexual repression -- we might expect the poem to be about culture and politics. Instead, it's about childhood. The poet drops a few historical references (Frank Sinatra, Ebbets Field) but they serve only as a backdrop for an affectionate self-portrait: a remembrance of preadolescent hope and confusion, a ramble of slow days and clung-to friends and vaguely expanding consciousness (the poem tracks the author as a toddler, feeling like his grandfather would never die, and also as an older boy, imagining that he had a cosmic reward coming just for "breathing in style" among his peers). All the expected agonies of early life are done away with in those first six words, leaving only the enchantments: "the spectacular black and white winter nights," the allure of the pink neon call letters of the radio station, angels imagined over parking lots.
Buckley had the 1950s. My childhood decade was the '80s, and, when it came down to it, I loved them too. Like his, my recollections are a haphazard mix of personal and cultural; the ecstasy of Friday-night sleepovers and the comforting simplicity of Saturday-morning TV, friendships solidified over bright electronic loops of Atari music. We played with G.I. Joe and Rambo toys and felt like they symbolized the people who protected us. Our favorite pop singers, from Michael Jackson to Cyndi Lauper, seemed weird but harmless -- eccentric aunts and uncles rather than troubling strangers. For preteens now, it's Minecraft instead of Atari, Taylor Swift instead of Jackson or Lauper. The scenery changes from one generation to another. The rites of passage, more or less, stay the same.
I seem to be reaching for childhood poems these days. Maybe it's because I'm a parent. The Journal of Radical Wonder has given me the extraordinary gift of a weekly poetry feature, and each of the last two weeks, I submitted a piece about a young character. The protagonist of "The Girl Concentrates" is being good, building a model space shuttle at her family's urging after a real one exploded on television. In "Boy at the Backyard Pond," the title character is being bad, at least kind of -- almost breaking the family's goldfish bowl with his recklessness, then testing his destructive powers with a rock in the backyard. We all have moments as children when we act as model citizens or savages. I would guess that most of our favorite memories are of times when we act as neither. That fertile ground in between, where we rub out the guidelines but leave enough of a trace to follow them if we need to, is where I think the essence of childhood really lies.
This is the side of us that forms cliques but not gangs, that passes notes but not threats, that stays up late telling scary stories but keeps them PG-13-rated. It's in that in-between world that we often begin shaping our personalities, even if they're less revolutionary than we imagine. I am thinking now of a couple of recent movies about filmmakers under 18: J.J. Abrams' Super 8 and Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans, In both films, the lead characters empower themselves by creating their own makeshift production companies: assigning parts, writing scripts, coming up with the best special effects their limited funds can buy. All of them dream of making it one day in Hollywood, where they will require tough skins and keen business acumen to survive. That's what childhood is often about, at least during the unsupervised hours: We shut out the adult world so that, in our own crude way, we can reenact it.
Sometimes, the adults remember. This week's poem in the Journal is "The Glass" -- another entry from The First Thing Mastered, which contains "Boy at the Backyard Pond" and other poems about the formative years of life. In this one, the narrator recalls the mysterious grownup that pushed a wine glass through the door to his friends during house parties on the Fourth of July, and the mixture of exhilaration (at skirting the rules) and revulsion (at the actual taste of wine) that he felt as a result. "The Glass" is written in first person, but it's entirely made up. Only the emotions in it are true. Growing up, most of us have those tingling encounters with things that we're not supposed to have: the R-rated movie that we glimpse a few seconds of, the power tool that we touch just for a second, the whispered comment that we overhear from an older person's room. Eventually, we reach an age when all those forbidden things are at our disposal. Our parents no longer keep us in line, but the police and IRS do. By then, we've learned to be good.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.