Dot writes: as a minor sidetrack from supervising an extended essay, I’ve been reading a book about teaching children to write poetry (Read My Mind: Young Children, Poetry and Learning, by Fred Sedgwick). The position taken in the book is that getting children to write poetry means getting them to look attentively at the world and at themselves, and that this kind of reflective, deep-seated, unquantifiable learning is too rarely fostered by assessment-dominated systems of education. The bulk of the book, however, is more occupied with comments on how to teach writing poetry, how to set productive constraints that will set the eye and the mind working. One of the simplest exercises Sedgwick suggests is to get children to choose their ‘six most precious words’.
Hugh woke early this morning (6.10 – a month ago I would have considered that a triumph but by recent standards it’s early). I knew he really needed more sleep, and I suspected his problem was partly a snuffly nose, so I sat down in the chair next to his cot and cuddled him semi-upright against my chest. As he snuggled his head against me and his breathing grew quiet and regular again, I set to thinking about my six most precious words. They have to be words that evoke things precious to me as well as being lovely in their wordliness. This is my list:
Baby – when I was pregnant with Hugh I loved saying this word to myself. I loved the sound of it, the lilt and rock, the soft voiced consonant and the change of vowel. And, course, I loved thinking about my baby, how he was and how he would be. I don’t like ‘babe’ nearly as much and avoid using it; it makes me think of 60s pop songs and the sheep-pig.
Murmur – I wanted something that would evoke the sea. ‘Whisper’ was the first I thought of, but there’s something thin about it, though the sibillance is appropriate. ‘Murmur’ puns on ‘mer’ as well as suggesting quiet waves, and it also continues the mood from my first word; I might tenderly murmur to my baby when he is having a rare angelic moment. (The other night he was running around naked waving a three-pronged wooden salad-tosser, and he looked exactly like a little imp with a pitchfork.)
Taffeta – my sister’s the one who knows about cloth: maybe this is actually quite the wrong kind of cloth. But it is a such a delightfully cosy word. The f in the middle is soft but springy, unlike the vs of velvet which are too limp. I wanted richness and texture. Probably because of a vague resemblance to the word ‘tabby’, this word makes me think of the soft warm fur of a cat.
Harebells – these flowers are both fragile and tough, small flowers standing up to a stiff breeze; they grow in nutrient-poor soils, for example in Scotland. I like the tension in the name, too, the hare for wildness and the bell for elegance.
Carolling – a bright and happy word! I wanted the present participle, too, and not the noun/infinitive ‘carol’: the participle is on the move, it is full of energy, it wants to be joined to something.
Grace – grace is a one-syllable word to end the list, simple and clean. It suggests to me both moral and physical attributes that I admire: an ease in the world and a generosity without fuss or jaggedness. It also stands for all that is given to us.
What are your most precious words?