Hilda Conkling, Child Poet: Why Did She Stop Writing?
Who Was Hilda Conkling?
Hilda Conkling was a precocious American child poet who wrote and published two volumes of poetry and a third volume, a collection of previously published works, in the early 1920's. Her poetry reflected an unusual connection with nature, an almost instinctual use of metaphor, refreshing imagery, and elements of fancy and fantasy. Several of her poems were subsequently set to music by noted composers. She also left this world with something of a mystery for her readers to ponder; Why did Hilda Conkling stop writing after the age of about twelve years?
Hilda Conkling was born 8 October 1910 at 106 Parsons Street in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Her father was Roscoe Platt Conkling. Her mother, Grace Hazard Conkling, was a writer, poet, and became professor of English at prestigious Smith College in Nothampton, Massachusetts. Hilda's parents separated when Hilda was four (she had a sister, Elsa, two years older), and the family lived in Northampton by the banks of the Connecticut river where they frequently enjoyed long nature walks in the woods and along the riverside.
"Poems" by Hilda Conkling
I know how poems come;
They have wings.
When you are not thinking of it
I suddenly say
"Mother, a poem!"
Somehow I hear it
Poems come like boats
With sails for wings;
Crossing the sky swiftly
They slip under tall bridges
Child Reciting a Poem by Hilda Conkling
The Creative Process
When Hilda was still only four years old, she spontaneously recited a poem that she had composed in her head while on one of their walks. Her mother was astonished at the simple beauty of the little poem, and hurried home to write the verse down before she forgot it. This pattern was to become the means by which Hilda's works were accumulated. She would recite, and her mother would transcribe, word for word, into a notebook. Many of her poems were printed in magazines and, in 1920, her first volume of poetry entitled Poems by a Little Girl was published to much acclaim. It was followed two years later by Shoes of the Wind.
Naturally, there were questions as to how much of the mother's thoughts or words influenced the compositions. But in several interviews Mrs. Conkling repeated how the process went, emphasizing that she copied exactly and word for word what Hilda would recite. Many times, if she could not jot the poem down in the moment, she would do so when they reached home, and Hilda would correct her if any words were not right or out of order. In fact she claimed that many of Hilda's poems had been "lost" because she didn't have writing materials handy and later could not accurately remember the exact words of the verse.
The End of Hilda's Poetry
For whatever reason, Mrs. Conkling decided, when Hilda was about 10 years old, that she would begin to encourage Hilda to write independently. Gradually, she began to suggest that poems Hilda would come up with should be written down by Hilda herself. As a result, Hilda's rate of composition decreased steadily, and by the time she was 12 or 13 years old she had ceased to write poetry completely. There are no known poems written by Hilda after this age.
As an adult, Hilda led a remarkably average life, for someone who had been so exceptional as a child. Though she apparently traveled quite a lot with her mother, she continued to live with her and sister Elsa, until Elsa married and moved out. Hilda worked as a bookstore manager in Northampton, and later in Boston, after her mother's death. Little else is known about her later life, but she never married and never produced more poetry. She died at the age of 75 on 26 June 1986 in Northampton.
"Moon Song" by Hilda Conkling
There is a star that runs very fast,
That goes pulling the moon
Through the tops of the poplars.
It is all in silver,
The tall star:
The moon rolls goldenly along
Out of breath.
Mr. Moon, does he make you hurry?
Why Did Hilda Conkling Stop Writing?
Since not a single poem, or piece of creative writing, has been documented as Hilda's after the age of 13, it appears there must have been a dramatic shift of some kind that curtailed the child's creative process so completely. There are two possible theories that present themselves, and it could well have been a combination of the two.
How Children Lose Their Creativity
First, it has long been observed that socialization of children that comes at school age throws a damper on spontaneity, free expression and even the creativity of the child. Some of this is normal and expected. A three-year-old who is unable to restrain his angry outbursts learns that, in a public setting, this is unacceptable and earns him disapproval by his peers. He stops having public outbursts.
But it is also true that formal education tends to restrain the free expression that is so characteristic of the younger child. The more rigid the curriculum, the more the child's spontaneous creativity may be squelched. The increase in required testing in recent years, for example, has correlated with a precipitous drop in creativity in children, as measured by the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), the most respected and accurate measure of creativity used by researchers. The more teachers are required to re-direct student's inclinations to think beyond the set educational goals as dictated by the testing, the more the creativity scores have tanked.
Could Hilda's cessation of creative writing have been discouraged as teachers in her schooling channeled her attention away from her natural inclinations? Could a concentration on reading, writing and 'rithmatic have supplanted her creative spark?
"Water" by Hilda Conkling
The world turns softly
Not to spill its lakes and rivers.
The water is held in its arms
And the sky is held in the water.
What is water,
That pours silver,
And can hold the sky?
Hilda Conkling's Poem "Water:" Set To Music
Hilda and Her Mother
Second to consider is her relationship with her mother. Hilda's parents separated when Hilda was four years old. There is no way of knowing how traumatic this split may have been on Hilda, who was clearly a very sensitive child and probably felt such a loss keenly. Her mother reported that initially Hilda would recite her poems to an imaginary friend named Mary Cobweb, and her mother would overhear and remark on how clever Hilda was. This seems to have encouraged Hilda to begin creating poems specifically for her mother, almost offering them as gifts to her. "I have a poem for you", she would say, and her mother would take out her pad and pencil.
The fact that, once her mother began to withdraw from her role as transcriptionist, Hilda's production steadily declined indicates that it may well have had a link to the relationship itself. Almost like an actor needs an audience for his craft to have meaning, once the other half of the equation was removed, the impetus to create dissolved. It may be noted as well that Hilda never married, but lived with her mother and cared for her until her death in 1958 when Hilda would have been 48 years of age. As it was unusual in that era for young women to remain single, it may indicate an excessive level of attachment between mother and child.
Could Hilda's unusually close relationship with her mother have been the channel through which her poetry was directed? Certainly many of her poems centered around the theme of her love for her mother. Was it perhaps her mother's decision to stop writing the poems down that put an end to this stream of creative expression? We will never know, as Hilda passed away thirty years ago, and everyone who knew her and may have had some insight is no longer with us.
"The Hills" by Hilda Conkling
The hills are going somewhere;
They have been on the way a long time.
They are like camels in a line
But they move more slowly.
Sometimes at sunset they carry silks,
But most of the time silver birch trees,
Heavy rocks, heavy trees, gold leaves
On heavy branches till they are aching...
Birches like silver bars they can hardly lift
With grass so thick about their feet to hinder...
They have not gone far
In the time I've watched them.
The Mystery of Hilda Conkling, Poet
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Hilda Conkling's Legacy
Certainly, we are reminded by Hilda Conkling of the human capacity for unique and artistic expression that we all possess. Regardless of where such abilities come from, we can reflect on the simple beauty of Hilda's verse as a reminder to protect and nourish the creative spark within our children and within each one of ourselves.
Hilda Conkling's poems are now in the public domain, and may be read on internet archives and downloaded, if desired. They are well worth reading, and the preface to her first collection, Poems by a Little Girl, was written by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Amy Lowell, and is an excellent insight into the talent and creativity of Hilda Conkling.
© 2016 Katharine L Sparrow
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