If you were asked to think of a prodigy, who would jump to mind? I would suggest that that list would be topped by Mozart. Wee Wölfi began to play the harpsichord when he was 3. By 5 he was performing publicly and had begun composing. But were these early pieces any good? Well, good enough at the time but the earliest work by him that is still performed today is Exsultate, Jubilate K165, written in 1773 when he was 17. (The K refers to Köchel, a musicologist who catalogued Mozart's complete output which makes Exsultate, Jubilate his 165th composition.)
Musical prodigies come ten a penny. If I restrict myself to the composers, though, there are a few well-known names there who made careers out of music: Mendelssohn was 12 when he started; Nino Rota and Korngold (best known as composer of film music) began at 11; Bizet entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 10 whilst Menotti began writing music at the tender age of 7, as did Paganini, Barber and Rheinberger.
So, how do you decide who's the greatest? According to the Times:
Ask most people to name classical music’s greatest child prodigy and you’d guess they would probably say Mozart. Not according to a poll in next month’s BBC Music Magazine, where Mendelssohn comes top, followed by Schubert. And Mozart? Not even in the top 10.
This rum result is partly to do with a condition of the poll, carried out by the country’s “most renowned” critics. The composers’ works had to be written before they were 18. And although little Wolfgang might have begun scribbling at the age of 5, he did nothing of great note, apparently, until his Symphony in A Major, K201, written when he was already 18. Quite a put-down for a man who composed more than 600 works before his death, aged 35. – TimesOnline, May 17th 2009
There was a recent television series highlighting the talents of Alex Prior (born 5 October 1992 in London) who began composing when he was only 8 and has already got 4 symphonies, 4 concertos, 2 ballets and an opera under his belt; the programme we saw concerned his Concerto for 4 soloists and orchestra, Velesslavitsa, the premiere of which featured 4 child prodigies as the soloists that were hand-picked during the series.
Just what is a child prodigy, though?
According to American developmental psychologist Dr David Henry Feldman, typically it is a child younger than 10 who is performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a very demanding field of endeavour. – thestar.com
Other sites say they can be anything up to 13 or even 15.
Musical prodigies are well known, as are science prodigies, maths prodigies, chess prodigies, but where are the poets?
In the future I won't need a Köchel to come along and catalogue my poems. I've been cataloguing and numbering them since I was 13 and by the time I'd reached 17 I'd already passed the 400 mark, 99% of which were eminently forgettable. I was first published at 16 and continued to see my name in print from then on. But was I a prodigy? I think not.
Wikipedia has a list of child prodigies and from it I extracted the poets:
Ervin Hatibi published his first poems at 14 in the major journals of the time, and, at 15, published his first book - well acclaimed by the critics.
William Cullen Bryant was published at 10 years old; at 13 years old, he published a book of political-satire poems.
Thomas Chatterton started as a poet at 11 years old. He began writing the poems that would make him famous at 12 years old.
Lucretia Maria Davidson, by 11 years old, had written some poems of note; before her death at 16 years old, she received praise as a writer.
Marjorie Fleming was a published poet before her death at 8 years old.
H. P. Lovecraft recited poetry at 2 years old and wrote long poems at 5 years old.
Other than Lovecraft – and who thinks of him as a poet nowadays? – I knew none of the names. So I started to see what I could discover on my own.
Milton was my first discovery, the only one I know as a poet. He started writing when he was 10.
Frankly, I don't think 10 is that amazing. And I certainly expect there are loads of poets out there who began writing by the age of 12. The question is: Have they written anything memorable? And I bet the answer is: No. I still have all my juvenilia. Almost all the paintings and music are long gone following a stupid self-righteous clear out about twenty years ago but the poems survived. I can think of very little I own from before I was twenty apart from them. A letter opener from Arran (or perhaps Dunoon) is the only other thing that jumps to mind although it's an ugly thing with some animal's leg as a handle. I have no idea what possessed me to buy it even at the time.
One prodigy I found online is a young girl called Akiane Kramarik, who is 13 now. You can read a selection of the poetry she has written between the ages of 7 and 11 here. She's probably better known as a painter and, while I'm not particularly taken by her work’s New Age-ness, I can't criticise her technique. I have seen far worse made into mass-market prints. One has to wonder if Mozart would be marketed more vigorously nowadays and I guess knowing what I do about Leopold (his dad) the answer would be: Yes.
I'm going to have a look at one of Akiane's poems on the subject of love. I'm assuming she was 11 when she wrote this one and, of course, one has to ask: What does a kid of 11 know about love?
Love is never alone
Love is always crowded
Love is the shared self
We cannot own our love
And we cannot teach our love
The longest breath of love
is the shortest distance to heaven
The deepest life is love
The deepest love is an embrace
Love is not rest
Love is peace
Love is the purpose
Seriously I wonder how many times people have attempted this very poem? And how do you write about love without dipping into the vast well of clichés that exist revolving around it? That's a hard one. I suppose it's one of those we need to get out of our system before we move on. Akiane's chosen to go down the 1 Corinthians 13 route and that's just fine, agape love is as valid a subject as any of the other loves. The problem is, how to improve on the scripture:
4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
I actually think she's done a fair job. And I so badly want to write ". . . for a kid," but I'm not going to. The whole thing about prodigies is that they need to be measured on adult terms – Akiane is either a good poet, full stop, or she's not. On the whole I think what's she's produced is the kind of stuff that a lot of kids who've undergone a strict religious upbringing might have done; yes, she's a bit precocious but I don’t see her, poetically anyway, as a child genius; her art is another thing entirely.
My very first poem was about love, the unrequited kind. 275 poems later I finally got round to trying to define love and it's just about as bad as you'd expect with a line like "Olives, vines and marble pillars" in it but I don't mind sharing poem #1 because I realised when I'd written it that I had something, didn't know quite what and it was years before it became clear to me:
Dreams Don't Come True
I put my arm around her shoulder,
I touched her skin:
It was all unreal, a fantasy.
Her hands were on her lap.
Her lips were sealed.
She was so cold.
A beautiful thing,
Lovely and fair,
Colder than ice,
Heart of stone,
She and I alone:
And she was so cold.
I talked a little,
She laughed me off.
Like the fly on the horse's back,
Crushed my dream,
Crushed my hope,
Squashed my life, my soul.
And she was so cold.
I never dated my poems back then but I'd say I was 13 at the time. And I'm sure it's not the worst poem that a 13-year-old has written but I would never pretend to be any kind of prodigy. For all that it's still a poem that still manages to please me 37 years later.
Someone said – I forget who and, for once, Google has let me down – that no one should be allowed to be a writer until they reach 30. By 30 I'd just about given up writing. Oh, I'd been published, loads of times, but that stopped mattering to me and I hardly sent anything out and finally I stopped writing completely. And then I hit my mid-thirties and began writing novels. Who the hell knew there was a novelist in there? Certainly not me. And after two novels the poetry came back.
The point that guy (I think it was a guy) had to make is to do with life experience. If I can twist a scripture to my own ends: When I was a child I wrote as a child but when I became a man I wrote like a man. There are two things that contribute to someone becoming a half-decent writer: reading and living, and both take time. Add these to natural talent and you might just have a fighting chance of making it as a writer.
I'm not sure that this applies to the other arts. As one can see by Akiane's paintings, they stand up against the paintings of adults; you would never know that Mozart's Symphony No 1 had been written by a child (I have a copy so I can say for sure) although it is understandably derivative. Mind you if you're going to copy anyone then the Bachs are a good place to start.
Another prodigy I ran across was Mattie Stepanek who died recently at the age of 13; he suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy. He has been hailed not only as a poet but a peacemaker. Precociously intelligent from all accounts, he began writing poetry at age 3 to cope with the death of his brother. He had apparently written hundreds of poems by the time he was 6. Only time will tell if he will be remembered or not but I suspect his response to the events of September 2001 might just be. It's hard to say. So many artists responded to that event that his poem might just get lost in the fray.
FOR OUR WORLD – Written September 2001
We need to stop.
Stop for a moment…
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.
We need to be silent.
Silent for a moment…
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.
We need to notice.
Notice for a moment…
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.
Stop, be silent, and notice…
In so many ways, we are the same.
Our differences are unique treasures,
We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
To nurture, to offer, to accept.
We need to be.
Be for a moment…
Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting.
Like children and lambs.
Never judging or vengeful
Like the judging and vengeful.
And now, let us pray.
Differently, yet together,
Before there is no earth, no life,
No chance for peace.
After him I'm struggling. Why?
Prodigies tend to appear almost exclusively in "rule-based" fields like music, chess or mathematics. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited, likens child prodigies to computers: Both excel in symbol manipulation, but fail to impress when it comes to the fuzzier undertakings.
“Fields like literature require maturity and life experience,” he explains. “Prodigies, no matter how gifted, rarely possess the requisite emotional spectrum, an acquaintance with the nuances and subtleties of human relationships, or the accumulated knowledge that comes from first-hand exposure to the ups and downs of reality.”
Some scholars, however, have argued that brilliant young minds like H.P. Lovecraft (who composed long poems by age 5) and John Stuart Mill (who knew several dead languages by age 8) were indeed gifted enough to qualify as prodigies. But they are in the minority. – 'Whiz Kids', Forbes.com