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View Full Version : [Poetry] Exercise on "There Was A Child" by Walt Whitman


Jae Onasi
02-21-2009, 12:05 PM
I thought this was a very interesting exercise in class, and thought you all might enjoy it as well. While I prefer fiction to poetry, I rather enjoyed this assignment. I'd love to see what you come up with as well.

Here is Whitman's poem that you'll build your poem on:


There Was A Child

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of
the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the mare's foal, and the cow's calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there--and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads--all became part of him.

The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him;
Winter-grain sprouts, and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden,
And the apple-trees cover'd with blossoms, and the fruit afterward,
and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road;
And the old drunkard staggering home from the out-house of the tavern, whence he had lately risen,
And the school-mistress that pass'd on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass'd--and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek'd girls--and the barefoot negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.

His own parents,
He that had father'd him, and she that had conceiv'd him in her womb, and birth'd him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that;
They gave him afterward every day--they became part of him.

The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table;
The mother with mild words--clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor
falling off her person and clothes as she walks by;
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger'd, unjust;
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture--the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay'd--the sense of what is real--the thought if, after all, it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time--the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets--if they are not flashes and specks, what are they?
The streets themselves, and the fašades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank'd wharves--the huge crossing at the ferries,
The village on the highland, seen from afar at sunset--the river between,
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown, three miles off,
The schooner near by, sleepily dropping down the tide--the little boat slack-tow'd astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color'd clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away
solitary by itself--the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon's edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

Jae Onasi
02-21-2009, 12:15 PM
Now, here's your exercise. Write down anything you can remember from when you were a young child, say around 5 or 6, or some time when you have good memories. Remember how your surroundings looked--the sights, the sounds, the things you did, the people you remember from your neighborhood. Write a new poem based on Whitman's. Keep the parts that are in bold in your poem. In parentheses, I'll have instructions on things you could use to replace the sections that you'll be re-writing to base it on you instead. Obviously, change the gender to match your own if necessary.

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of
the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

(THE FOLLOWING ARE DETAILS REMEMBERED ABOUT THE IMMEDIATE SURROUNDINGS OF A YOUNG CHILD)


The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the mare's foal, and the cow's calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there--and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads--all became part of him.

The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him;
Winter-grain sprouts, and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden,
And the apple-trees cover'd with blossoms, and the fruit afterward,
and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road;

(THE FOLLOWING ARE PEOPLE WHO MIGHT PASS REGULARLY THROUGH A CHILD'S NEIGHBORHOOD. NOTICE THAT THIS PASSAGE INCLUDES BOTH A NAMING OF THE PEOPLE AND A DESCRIPTION OF HOW THEY PASSED THROUGH).

And the old drunkard staggering home from the out-house of the tavern, whence he had lately risen,
And the school-mistress that pass'd on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass'd--and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek'd girls--and the barefoot negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.

His own parents,
He that had father'd him, and she that had conceiv'd him in her womb, and birth'd him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that;
They gave him afterward every day--they became part of him.

(NOTICE THAT THESE DESCRIPTIONS OF THE MOTHER AND FATHER INCLUDE WHAT THEY WOULD BE TYPICALLY DOING AND A SENSE OF THEIR DEMEANOR)

The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table;
The mother with mild words--clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor
falling off her person and clothes as she walks by;
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger'd, unjust;
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture--the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay'd--the sense of what is real--the thought if, after all, it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time--the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets--if they are not flashes and specks, what are they?

(NOTICE THAT THE FOLLOWING ARE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS THAT A CHILD WOULD NOTICE COMING FROM A DISTANCE, FOR EXAMPLE, MOUNTAINS, TRAIN WHISTLES, FACTORY WHISTLES, OCEANS, AND SO ON)

The streets themselves, and the fašades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank'd wharves--the huge crossing at the ferries,
The village on the highland, seen from afar at sunset--the river between,
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown, three miles off,
The schooner near by, sleepily dropping down the tide--the little boat slack-tow'd astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color'd clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away
solitary by itself--the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon's edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

Jae Onasi
02-21-2009, 12:17 PM
Here's the version I created:

After Whitman's “There Was A Child”

There was a child went forth every day;
and the first object she looked upon, that object she became;
And that object became part of her for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for
many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The glittering snow crystals became part of this child
and grass, and buttery dandelions, and the robin-song
and the third-month daffodils reaching to the sun with their cheery yellow bonnets,
and tiny rabbits emerging from winter holes, and the squirrels rustling between the leaves of
the gold and white tulips, all became part of her.

The broad rhubarb leaves and ruby stalks of Fourth month and fifth month became part of her;
ferny carrot-tops and white bean blossoms, and the tiny yellow tomato blooms magically turning into red fruit bowing the green vines to the ground, next to the swingset where she played every day, scraping fun dirt ruts into the lawn.

The animals who made their way into the home and her heart became part of her; dogs playing “Fetch” with tails wagging their whole bodies, or cats bringing a crumpled paperwad for her to play “Throw” and then curling up in her lap, purring, after leaving the squashed paper ball just outside her reach.

And the fathers with their Saturday contests on morning lawn-manicuring and evening grilling,
and the mothers pushing babies in strollers with grocery bags in the basket below, and children running in exuberant circles or flashing by on bright-colored bicycles,
and the old couple holding hands and taking slow steps with their canes, and all the changes of the neighborhood, wherever she went.

Her own parents,
He that had father'd her, and she that had conceiv'd her in her womb, and
birth'd her,
They gave this child more of themselves than that;
They gave her afterward every day—they became part of her.

The mother at home, heavy with another child, folds clothes while the meatloaf
fills the room with rich dinner-scent. Another girl toddles at her feet,
playing with a baby doll or pulling on the puppy's tail, giggling.

The father, tinkering after work with the stereo, or laughing at the Bill Cosby record,
“Shoopa, shoopa, shoopa...DING!! NOAH!!”, or playing the invisible piano in manic chords as Janis Joplin plays,
before settling into the recliner for the night after eating the meatloaf dinner to watch Johnny and Roy
rescue a family from a fire for Dr. Brackett and Nurse Dixie McCall to save.
They talk hush'd tones about Watergate and Nixon and something about 'peaches',
and it frustrates her because it keeps interrupting the Six Million Dollar Man.
War and inflation and a President leaves in disgrace and Communist Pinkos and long lines at the gas pump where gas is no longer a quarter a gallon and people are afraid, but send the kids outside to play in the warm sun with “Don't worry about it.”

Men and women crowding fast in the streets—if they are not flashes and specks, what are they?
The broad boulevards, and the boxy Cape Cods with gabled windows, and the signs for the specials in the grocery windows,
Cars, trucks, and vans like ants in long lines carrying things to and from their homes—the long trains lumbering down the tracks blocking the street for ages with the ding-ding-ding of the crossing signal still sounding after the red caboose waves goodbye,
The morning foghorn baying a low warning as the sun slowly lifts away the mists, the Michigan waves sometimes brushing the beach in gentle kisses and sometimes beating the rocks in anger,
the blue sky that can turn in an instant on a hot sticky day into turmoil'd sickly green and black clouds, making the tornado sirens blare their warning: “Run to the basement!” and then rain or hail or turn into a rainbow if she's lucky. She doesn't need the pot of gold at the end—the rainbow is gift enough when she escapes from basement safety back into rainshine.

These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.