Hilda Conkling, Child Poet: Why Did She Stop Writing?

Hilda Conkling age 8
Hilda Conkling age 8 | Source

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

Rustling.

Poems come like boats

With sails for wings;

Crossing the sky swiftly

They slip under tall bridges

Of cloud.

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.

Hilda Conkling about age 10
Hilda Conkling about age 10 | Source

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

Why do you think Hilda stopped writing?

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Hilda Conkling
Hilda Conkling | Source

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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Comments Appreciated! 11 comments

Duchessoflilac1 profile image

Duchessoflilac1 8 months ago from Johns Island, SC

I had not heard of her before and I am a literature major. There is another possibility. Hilda could have had a learning disability (dyslexia maybe) making putting her thoughts into written words a chore. I have several students who could tell wonderful stories orally, but could not write them on paper. Just a thought.


Sparrowlet profile image

Sparrowlet 8 months ago from Massachusetts, USA Author

Rebecka, you may be on to something! I thought it a little odd that she didn't have a more illustrious career as an adult, even if not in poetry. Perhaps she didn't do well in school due to something like dyslexia? Good thought, thanks for your professional input!


threekeys profile image

threekeys 8 months ago from Australia

I don't know why....but its very sad.

You get taught at school that using your left brain is the way of really answering questions to life and getting you ahead in life. But is it really? Imagination is the door to freedom and innovation.

I just feel very sorry for her. What a loss....


Jodah profile image

Jodah 8 months ago from Queensland Australia

This was a delightful hub. It is a shame that such a talented young poet had her creativity stifled probably by her mother ceasing to write down her poetry. It appears she was very attune with nature. It is good though that her poetry was preserved and even put to music. Thank you for sharing.


RaisedByBears profile image

RaisedByBears 8 months ago from Duluth

Very interesting look. Love the poems - imagery is sublime. I'm familiar with Rosco Conkling's troubled political life as puppit master to Chester A. Arthur. Hilda appears to be his grandchild, and her father also appears to be something of a philanderer. This is an interesting view of talent obscured and I fear Shakespeare's quote, 'The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children" - comes to mind. Dutchess of Lilac's post above brings forth an interesting possibility. My father has had to deal with dyslexia all his life, graduating from college through shear hard work in a time before dyslexia was a diagnosis.


Sparrowlet profile image

Sparrowlet 8 months ago from Massachusetts, USA Author

Thank-you Jodah! Yes, she had a keen sense of the natural world, for sure.


Sparrowlet profile image

Sparrowlet 8 months ago from Massachusetts, USA Author

threekeys, I agree, it is a shame that she did not continue to write. I would love to have seen what she came up with as an adult!


Sparrowlet profile image

Sparrowlet 8 months ago from Massachusetts, USA Author

RaisedByBears - I had no idea about her grandfather! Shall have to look that up! I agree, the possibility of dyslexia or some learning disability could well have been an issue for Hilda, gone un-diagnosed. Whatever the reason, it is too bad she ceased her beautiful compositions.


RaisedByBears profile image

RaisedByBears 8 months ago from Duluth

Sparrowlet, mind you, I am not 100% sure. When Rosco Conkling (died 1888) was in the US Senate, one of his close collegues was named Platt. Hilda's father was Rosco Platt Conkling. Made the likely connection, but I could be wrong.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 7 months ago from Stillwater, OK

The work is remarkable for such a young child. Perhaps it had something to do with a learning disability that she ceased her work, since she was unable to continue on her own, it appears.


Sparrowlet profile image

Sparrowlet 7 months ago from Massachusetts, USA Author

Yes, I think that is a good possibility, Deb. Learning disabilities were not usually diagnosed back then, never mind accommodated for. Perhaps she had a processing problem that so many children have where they find it difficult to put thoughts into writing. If so, it's even more sad, since if her mother had realized, then she might have been more willing to continue transcribing them for her. Oh well, what she did leave us is still a treasure!

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