Read Two Poems David Foster Wallace Wrote During His Elementary School Days


Some read­ers dis­cov­er David Fos­ter Wal­lace through his fic­tion, and oth­ers dis­cov­er him through his essays. (Find 30 Free Sto­ries & Essays by DFW here.) Now that the pub­lish­ing indus­try has spent more than five years putting out every­thing of the late writer’s left­over mate­r­i­al they can rea­son­ably turn into books, new DFW fans may arrive through more forms still: his inter­views, Keny­on com­mence­ment speech, phi­los­o­phy the­sis, etc.. And though he pro­duced too few of them to appear col­lect­ed between cov­ers, Wal­lace once wrote poems as well, though judg­ing by the hand­writ­ing of the two shown here, he seems to have both start­ed down and aban­doned that par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary avenue in child­hood. Still, that very qual­i­ty — and the oppor­tu­ni­ty it holds out to see the lin­guis­tic for­ma­tion of a man lat­er regard­ed as a prose genius — makes them all the more intrigu­ing. First, we have the unti­tled poem above, a sym­pa­thet­ic paean to the labors of moth­er­hood:

My moth­er works so hard
And for bread she needs some lard.
She bakes the bread. And makes the bed.
And when she’s threw
She feels she’s dayd.


Sec­ond, we have ”Viking Song”, which he prob­a­bly wrote lat­er. (The Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter at UT-Austin, where the text resides, believes he was 6 or 7 when he wrote the poem.)

Vikings oh! They were so strong
Though there war­riors won’t live so long.
For a long time they rode the stormy seas.
Whether there was a great big storm or a lit­tle breeze.
There ships were made of real strong wood
As every good ship real­ly should.
If you were to see a Viking today
It’s best you go some oth­er way.
Because they’d kill you very well
And all your gold they’ll cer­tain­ly sell
For all these rea­sons stay away
From a Viking every day.

Though not what we would call mature works, these two poems still offer much of inter­est to the ded­i­cat­ed DFW exegete. “Note Wallace’s uncom­mon phras­ing in ‘so hard and for bread,’ ” writes Jus­tine Tal Gold­berg of the first. “I can’t think of a sin­gle child who would opt for this phras­ing over, say, a more sim­ple ‘so hard to make bread,’ ” a choice that demon­strates he “was already exhibit­ing the mas­ter­ful grasp of lan­guage for which he would lat­er become famous.” Alex Balk at The Awl calls “Viking Poem” “ ‘charm­ing and trag­ic,” adding that “the obvi­ous enthu­si­asm with which he wrote it makes me reflect on the joys of child­hood that we tend to for­get.” Wal­lace’s biog­ra­ph­er D.T. Max goes into more depth at the New York­er, iden­ti­fy­ing “moments in these poems that her­ald (or just acci­den­tal­ly fore­shad­ow?) the mature David’s Amer­i­can plain­song voice.” I’ve heard it assert­ed that every child has a nat­ur­al capac­i­ty for poet­ry, but the young Wal­lace, preter­nat­u­ral­ly per­cep­tive even then, must have soon real­ized that his tex­tu­al strengths resided else­where.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Love of Lan­guage Revealed by the Books in His Per­son­al Library

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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