Concerning Hilda Conkling

Hilda Conkling (1920)
Artist unknown – Hilda Conkling (1920) – from Poems By a Little Girl (via Cadbury Research Library)

As a little girl, Hilda Conkling recited poems to her mother, Grace Hazard Conkling, who wrote them down. She would then, apparently without telling Hilda, publish some of them in journals and periodials, in particular in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. In the issue of September the 1st, 1919, there is an interesting correspondence about Hilda, then approaching her 9th birthday, her writing and her talent.

A reader named E. Sapir asks if Hilda’s poems are really improvised, and whether her mother rearranges them. Grace Hazard Conkling answers and confirms that she transcribes her daughter’s poems without any change. She also confesses having lost some poems because she did not write them down accurately enough. Then there is a very interesting second answer by the poetess Louise Driscoll (who also published in the Poetry magazine). She reveals that Hilda started to recite her poems to an imaginary friend called “Mary Cobweb”, before noticing that her mother loved them, then the girl offered them to her as gifts. Driscoll stresses the creative imagination, inspiration and independence of external suggestion in Hilda’s poetry. Her testimony ends with “I hope she may never lose her sense of intimate relation with the universe.

However, “the cutting and drying process that goes by the name of education,” as said the poetess Amy Lowell who prefaced Hilda’s first volume Poems by a Little Girl, put a halt to Hilda’s creativity, she stopped composing poems in her early teens. Had she lost her inner friend “Mary Cobweb”? Had she been forced to become “serious” and “adult”?



The following letters ask and answer a number of questions which have been received at this office:

Dear POETRY: Could you not give your readers more explicit information as to just how those poems of Hilda Conkling’s are done: To what extent does her mother select, rearrange and give form? Is it all actually improvised as given? Then I must make a pilgrimage to Hilda and kiss her little hands. What a delightful little genius! For You, Mother and The Dew-light are, quite without qualification, among the very best things in the July number, which is one of the most notable I have seen. Such queer little flashes of imagination! “With a curl of cloud and a feather of blue,” “The white bunnies beg him for dew,” “It is time for summer when the birds come back to pick up their lonesome songs,” and many others!
E. Sapir

Dear Miss Monroe: I do not change words in Hilda’s poems, nor alter her word-order; I write down the lines as rhythm dictates. She has made many poems which I have had to lose because I could not be certain of accurate transcription. I make notes on those I keep, to be sure I have them as she says them. I never tell her about this, but she does know that I like her to do it. Recently she made a song and then said, “Forget that one, Mother—it’s too rhymish.” She says she likes to talk her thoughts to me, and this is as good a description as I can think of if you ask me, “How does Hilda do it?” I do not read much verse to Hilda because I do not like to have her try to imitate it. She loves to have verse read which she cannot wholly understand, and is most fond of the odes of John Keats and Swinburne’s chorus from Atalanta beginning, “When the hounds of Spring are on Winter’s traces,” which she loves for the sound of it, for some of the nature detail, and for the presence of the great god Pan.
Grace Hazard Conkling

Dear POETRY: I have asked Mrs. Conkling to let me answer Mr. Sapir’s questions about Hilda, because I have seen her “making poems” all her short life. Hilda is the clearest case of inspiration I have ever known. She will be nine years old in October, and a form of chant to an imaginary comrade she called “Mary Cobweb” was her earliest expression. A bit of mosquito-netting thrown over her head, the fur collar of a visitor about her throat—any little change of dress or ornament—creates a new world for her, a complete world, full of detail; and she used to tell Mary Cobweb about it in a song. Then she learned that her mother was pleased with the songs, and now the poem has become a gift. “I have a poem for you, Mother,” is the phrase she uses, frequently offering a choice—“You may have this one or this one.” Her mother chooses one and usually manages to get the others. Sometimes Hilda will “make” four or five songs at once, and then there will be intervals when she will not “make” any for several weeks. Mrs. Conkling never changes the poems.
Hilda still has certain baby errors in speech—faint away for fade away, and some others; but she has a natural interest in words and often uses rather striking expressions, as when she recently spoke of a woman with “a slipping memory.”
An interesting phase of her creative mind is its independence of external suggestion. The cottage where we have been staying is on a hilltop in open country, and Hilda was fascinated by what she called the “orange lilies” that grew near. One evening she said, “I have made a poem today; it’s about flowers.” I rather expected to hear of “orange lilies,” but she said, “The Land of Poppies is back of the silver leaf.” This poem was not finished. There were babies in the Land of Poppies, but no birds. When we asked why there were no birds she said, “They are afraid of going to sleep and not waking up—the babies don’t know enough to be afraid.” She is always sure of the detail.
In reading Hilda’s poems it must be remembered that she has been very carefully taught. She knows the Greek gods and the heroes of mythology as well as she does her dolls and her playmates. She is familiar with good music. She knows a good deal of good poetry. She has never heard anything else. We were speaking of daffodils a few days ago and Hilda knew what Shakespeare, Dryden and Wordsworth had said about them. When she tells us what she sees and hears in her world of dreams she has the advantage of knowing only good English to use. It is as natural for Hilda to speak of Narcissus as for some other children of the outrages in the “funny sheet” of a contemporary newspaper. She does not know that her poems are being printed, and so far she is free from self-consciousness about them. She is a normal little girl, very pretty, with a great quantity of fair hair and rather odd blue eyes—almond eyes, with the points coming well out to the temples; a quick, graceful, affectionate child, with a sure instinct for beauty and an amazing creative imagination. I hope she may never lose her sense of intimate relation with the universe.
Louise Driscoll

Source: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Volume 14, Number 6 (1st Sep., 1919), pages 344–346. Available on Internet Archive and on JSTOR.

Previously published on Agapeta, 2016/02/26.

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