Biography of Hilda Conkling, 1910-1986

"[Children] . . . have the singular faculty of being able to make concrete images out of the merest gossamer of a fairy tale. A seven year old child sings,--

I cannot see fairies,
I dream them.
There is no fairy that can hide from me;
I keep on dreaming till I find him.
There you are, Primrose! I see you, Blackwing!"

(Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, p. 210)

"Fairy Gifts": Biographical Sketch by Anne White

One day when Hilda Conkling was about ten years old, she went to see a movie with her friends. In those days, silent picture shows began with a newsreel, which showed all kinds of world events and interesting happenings. When the newsreel began, Hilda was horrified to see her own face on the screen. "I could have died," she recalled later, "when the other children started pointing and laughing." What made a ten-year-old girl so newsworthy? She had been "writing" poetry since the age of four; she was now the author of Poems by a Little Girl; and she would go on to publish two more books before "retiring" in her early teens.

Many of us have read about composers, athletes, actors, and others whose talents were apparent very early in their lives. Some of them, like Mozart, seem to have been pushed into their careers by overly-eager parents. Others were treated more like Handel, who (as we are told by one of his biographers), was forbidden by his father to play any music, but practiced secretly in the attic. Sometimes child prodigies turn out to have long, successful careers, like the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Some cannot cope with the pressure (or their decreasing fame), and get themselves into trouble. But others simply walk away from their gifts, and are discovered years later selling insurance or raising cattle. What was Hilda Conkling's story?

Hilda and her older sister Elsa were raised in Massachusetts by their mother, Grace Hazard Conkling, who was a professor of English and had many literary acquaintances, including Robert Frost and Walter de la Mare. Hilda's parents divorced when she was very young, and for that reason and others, she had an extremely close relationship with her mother. The foreword to Poems, which was written by the poet Amy Lowell, makes it sound as if they led quite an idyllic life:

"The children and their mother live all the year round in Northampton, and glimpses of the woods and hills surrounding the little town crop up again and again in these poems. This is Emily Dickinson's country, and there is a reminiscent sameness in the fauna and flora of her poems in these. The two little girls go to a school a few blocks from where they live. In the afternoons, they take long walks with their mother, or play in the garden while she writes. On rainy days, there are books and Mrs. Conkling's piano, which is not just a piano, for Mrs. Conkling is a musician . . ."

Preschooler Hilda, according to one source, was first overheard "telling" original bits of poetry to an imaginary friend. Her mother suggested that Hilda "tell her poems" to her instead, and this was the way that all of the poems were recorded, often without Hilda's awareness.

"I didn't realize mother was writing down what I said," she said. "She wrote poems, too, and always had a pad in her hands, so it didn't seem unusual, me babbling, her scribbling. But later, she'd read them back to me, and I always knew if she'd taken a word down wrong, I could always correct her."

This unusual way of working caused accusations that Grace Conkling was in fact the author of Hilda's poems; but they both denied this, and Amy Lowell's essay, overly cheerful as it may be, does seem to prove that it was Hilda's own imagination that created them.

What happened to make Hilda stop creating poems? Again, it seems to have been a suggestion of her mother's which, this time, had unfortunate consequences. After the publication of Hilda's second book of poems (the third was a compilation of the first two), Grace Conkling asked her to begin writing them down for herself.

But she never did.

Some commenters have suggested that Hilda had some form of learning disability that made writing difficult for her. However, the fact that she went on to study at good schools (paid for with the royalties from her books), that she taught children and then managed bookstores for most of her life makes it clear that this wasn't a woman who avoided books; and in an interview years later, she never suggested such a thing. What is obvious, though, is that Hilda's mother was a dominant force in her life, from childhood until Grace's death in 1958. It seems just as likely that, without her mother as her audience and secretary, Hilda simply lost her motivation to write. Hilda herself said that, rather than encouraging her to find her voice as an adult poet, her mother seemed to downplay her talents. Perhaps this was because she wanted her daughter to enjoy a "normal" sort of life, without the embarrassing media attention she had already received. However, Hilda said that her mother's message that "you are just like everyone else" caused her to grow up not quite knowing what to do with herself. "I wasn't knocking myself out," she later admitted.

Hilda Conkling never married, and continued to live in the same area for the rest of her life. She thought about writing an autobiography, and said that she sometimes "thought" bits of poetry, but if she did write any of it down, it was never published. She lived in an apartment with several cats, and died at the age of seventy-five.

But for those few years when Hilda's "fairy gift" was hers to use, she was, as Amy Lowell said,

"possessed of a rare and accurate power of observation. And when we add this to her gift of imagination, we see that it is the perfectly natural play of these two faculties which makes what to her is an obvious expression . . . By this means, her poetical gift has functioned happily, without ever for a moment experiencing the tension of doubt."

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