Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Poems You Love by Heart

On this first day of National Poetry Month, I've been thinking of how and when I first encountered poetry. I don't remember my grandmother having quite so many books around the house, but the ones she had struck a chord. I have her copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, old enough that many of the poets--Kipling, for example--had dates of birth listed but not death. I remember first lines of "Hiawatha's Childhood" and one of my dad's favorites, "Abou Ben Adhem."

The one my sisters and I loved over and over was "The Duel," the story of the tragic fight between the gingham dog and the calico cat.

The first poem I learned by heart--and still know--was "The Swing," from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. I was fortunate enough to go to elementary school when recess seemed to last forever, and we were turned loose on the old-fashioned playground with a merry-go-round that had a "girl's way" and a "boy's way"--the subject of great physical competitions. We had monkey bars that easily converted into jail cells when we played cowboys. I loved the swings the best--tall metal stands with heavy chains and thick flat wooden seat. In my head, I heard over and over, "Oh how I love to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue. . . ."

The next poem I remember loving most was read to us by Mrs. Flora Hopper, my teacher in both fifth and sixth great: "Skipper Ireson's Ride" by John Greenleaf Whittier (one of the familiar faces from the "Authors" card game. ) We'd beg her to read it to us, just to hear that hilarious refrain, particularly when the poem slipped into the braying dialect of those widows of Marblehead.

Memorization has not enjoyed its finest day in classrooms recently, but I held out, having high school seniors memorize those first eighteen lines of the prologue to Canterbury Tales, the seven stages of man, and the last lines of "Thanatopsis."

While I tell my students that I assign memory work to ward off Alzheimer's, that's only part of the story. I hope they'll learn to love the way poems sound in their heads and feel in their mouths. What I want most is for them to learn the poems not by rote but by heart.

1 comment:

Gina said...

It came from YOU!! Thanatopsis came from you, and I didn't even realize it!! I am delighted to know that now. At my grandmother's funeral, nearly 10 years ago, I requested that the preacher read the last lines from Thanatopsis AND when I was at MHBS I required several of my classes to memorize the last lines as well. And now I know why.

I SO love you.