Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Child Development

It's no secret that Billy Collins is an idol of mine. The man is consistently able to find a way to say something incredibly profound in a way that is comical and/or light-hearted. His style is very simple, very narrative, which is the only way that I know how to write. This poem is one of my favorite of his poems:

Child Development
by Billy Collins

As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs
and sauntered off the beaches into forests
working up some irregular verbs for their
first conversation, so three-year-old children
enter the phase of name-calling.

Every day a new one arrives and is added
to the repertoire. You Dumb Goopyhead,
You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor
(a kind of Navaho ring to that one)
they yell from knee level, their little mugs
flushed with challenge.
Nothing Samuel Johnson would bother tossing out
in a pub, but then the toddlers are not trying
to devastate some fatuous Enlightenment hack.

They are just tormenting their fellow squirts
or going after the attention of the giants
way up there with their cocktails and bad breath
talking baritone nonsense to other giants,
waiting to call them names after thanking
them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.
The mature save their hothead invective
for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,
or receding trains missed by seconds,
though they know in their adult hearts,
even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed
for his appalling behavior,
that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids,
their wives are Dopey Dopeheads
and that they themselves are Mr. Sillypants.

I am a somewhat immature person, but I've always prided myself on the fact that I can be mature when I need to be (but only when I need to be). But I can't tell you how many times during the course of a day that I want to call someone "bozo" or "dumbo." I'm not much for vulgarity, so my most creative names are generally along the lines of an angry toddler's rants. When I first read this poem, I'm pretty sure I laughed out loud.

I love the lines, "The mature save their hothead invective/for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,/or receding trains missed by seconds...." When I do something stupid (like forget my lunch at home, or stub my toe on the shower, or fall out of a chair--which I do pretty regularly) I usually yell "son of a monkey," which makes no sense at all. I don't know why I say it or where it came from, but I know that I'd prefer to yell one of the other such colorful obscenities, the ones that Collins so obviously want to say in his poem but avoids.

The truly great thing about this poem is the simple message that it contains: we're all just kids at heart, no matter what "mature" situation we find ourselves in. When we get angry, when we get frustrated, we think the same juvenile thoughts as the average 8-year-old; we just have learned to cover them up and hide or suppress our own negative thoughts. It's a very simple truth that the world forces us to be "mature" even when we would prefer to just stick out our tongue and laugh.

No comments: