Children’s Games

Poem: Children’s Games
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


Having no relationship with Hayim Bialik’s poetry, much of the deep meaning of Geoffrey Hill’s “Children’s Games” is forbidden me. But there remains the surface.

The central element of the poem is a tonal shift, the transition from childhood to war. This happens at an overarching level, as we move from the innocence of the children’s games promised by the title to “air foil-fêted / and with zinc clatterings.” But it also happens at a lower level, in the games themselves. Consider:

From laughter to slaughter,
from shul to Sheol,
from Torah to Ahor.
Say Noah-Shoah.

These are actual games, and on the surface very free and childlike. It is the poet’s childishness, his pure delight in words and sounds, delight only amplified by seeing how little a change (adding a letter, say, or rearranging letters) can wreak havoc with meaning—“from laughter to slaughter…”

Very well, but why are we instructing to “Tell Bialik”? Here my unfamiliarity prevents me from delving too deeply. The poem itself only tells us that “he should know.” What he knows, it seems, are these “memory games.” My minimal sleuthing reveals that many of Bialik’s poems involved reminiscence of his childhood, as well as frustration with anti-Semitic violence (and Semitic passivity in the face of it). So there is the hint of a connection, though those more familiar with Bialik will have to draw it out.

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Parry

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