Childhood Conjugation

Our mother tongue’s a mile-long smorgasbord
where children eat for free. With giggling ease
they wolf down words that grown-ups can’t afford
and guzzle grammar like soft strings of peas.
One day I told my three-year-oldish kid
the hour had come to clear her breakfast plate.
“I amn’t done!” she snapped (she really did),
her childhood conjugation then complete.
“It isn’t done!”—the fork that prods the dough.
“You aren’t done!”—the despot’s flimsy knife.
“I amn’t done!”—the spoon, that wide-mouthed bowl,
the ladle scooping language in sweet bites.
Like roasted coffee or strong IBUs,
we must acquire a taste for bitter rules.



The Draughtsman’s Dream

That hour when masons first roll out their plans,
they glimpse the structure of the draughtsman’s mind,
midwifed in clay by their own shaky hands
in longing for the promised blueprint lines.
All nascent vision’s fired in silver glass,
in echoes of a young, expectant home,
green-timbered like the lithe, unsteady mast
that tacks into a windswept, fraught unknown.
Do you remember, love, when we were wed?
Our body’s union vaulting in a surge
of mortared bricks? That bright, exultant dread
when—flash!—the draughtsman’s clay-stacked dream emerged?
That labor’s passed. Now come, let’s build our home.
Past plans take shape when present plans take hold.



David O’Neil is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana. His scholarship on medieval poetic meter has appeared recently in The Mediaeval Journal, Enarratio, Philological Quarterly, and Essays in Medieval Studies.

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5 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    Dear David O. —
    You truly understand poetry.
    So often earnest poets follow the rules, but forget to break them. Without learning to grab the guidelines, your child has got to the core of it — remembered to do what so many forget.
    And you have caught a subtle point, then swung with it.
    Excellent poem — and kudos to your kid !

    • David O.

      Thank you these thoughtful words, Sally! I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the poem. It is a great joy watching our older daughter grapple with the rules and expressive possibilities of language, and I love all of her delightful “mistakes.” We never correct her and will be sad when this stage is over (though her little sister is starting on her first words now, so we’ll get round two).

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    If a child says “I amn’t done!” as an idiosyncratic contraction for “I am not done!” she is merely attempting to follow the apparent rules for contraction in English. She’ll learn in time.

    My parents told me that, as a small child, I would say “Shut on the light.” I clearly took it as a natural complement to the normal sentence “Shut off the light.”

  3. David O.

    No doubt you are right that she will grow out of it. Too bad, really. The ungrammaticality of “amn’t” leaves a pointless gap in our set of negatory contractions. My daughter’s usage may be idiosyncratic, but it is more logical than the prohibition.

  4. Monty

    I read your Bio before reading your poetry (it’s a habit of mine), and when I noticed the ‘scholarship on poetic meter’, I assumed that the meter in the poems would be faultless . . and so it was. Both pieces have got a lovely flow to them; and the diction/syntax is clear and fluid throughout. I also found both pieces to be rich in language, containing some well-thought metaphors/analogies.

    Regarding the rhymes: after the excellence of the first four lines – bord/afford.. ease/peas – I was a tad disappointed that both pieces thereafter degenerated into non-rhymes (apart from did/kid and wed/dread): but I s’pose we can’t have it all.

    I like the original concepts of the two pieces; they are both interesting ideas for a poem, especially the first one, which I instantly related to. When my daughter (now 32) was aged between 5 and 10, she used to use grammatically-incorrect past-tenses; but to me, they weren’t really incorrect. For example, she would say: “I bited it” (instead of ‘bit it’).. or “he fighted the other man” (instead of ‘fought’).. or “I runned all the way there” (instead of ‘ran’) . . and many other examples. This used to truly fascinate me, ‘coz even though she was yet to learn ‘bit, fought, ran’, she was aware of the mechanism of adding a ‘d’ or ‘ed’ to the end of words to render them into past-tenses. If we take, for example, the aforementioned ‘fighted’; given that sighted, righted, lighted and flighted are all proper words, who’s to tell a 7 year-old that ‘fighted’ is wrong? As you so beautifully described it above, such usage “is more logical than the prohibition”.

    Like you, David, I also took joy in watching my daughter “grapple with the rules”; and I was fascinated with her “mistakes”.. which made me reluctant to “correct her”. I was constantly in a state of admiration at her in-built sense of using a ‘d’ or ‘ed’ where she saw fit to do so.

    I wish you a happy ’round two’ with the little sister.


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