Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thank God for poetry!

I leaf through an old poetry textbook, looking for a muse and find, instead, notes I took in a Children’s Lit class, years ago. “All poetry should make one think and feel—except nonsense rhyme which gives a release.” Interesting concept. Idly, I continue turning pages.

Past the nursery rhymes:

When I am the President
Of these United States,
I’ll eat up all the candy
And swing on all the gates.

Hmmm. We won’t go there.

I page past Sinclair Lewis’ poem entitled CAT:
This is a cat that sleeps at night,
That takes delight
In visions bright,
And not a vagrant that creeps at night
On box-cars by the river.
This is a sleepy cat to purr
And rarely stir
Its shining fur;
This is a cat whose softest purr
Means salmon, steaks, and liver.

This is a cat respectable,
With selectable
Feline families respectable,
Whose names would make you quivver.
This is a cat of piety,
Not satiety,
But sobriety.
Its very purr is of piety
And thanks to its Feline Giver.

And this is how it prays:

“Ancient of days
With whiskers torrendous,
Hark to our praise,
Lick and defend us.
Lo, how we bring to Thee
Sweet breasts of mouses;
Hark how we sing to Thee,
Filling all houses
With ardent miaouses,
Until it arouses
All mankind to battery.
Thou of the golden paws,
Thou of the silver claws,
Thy tail is the comet’s cause,
King of all cattery!”

(A rather different rhyme scheme. And I’d forgotten that two of Mr. Lewis’s dearest loves were poetry and cats.)

Continuing to turn pages, I find THE HIGHWAYMAN, a poem of love, betrayal and selfless loyalty that’s high on my list of best-loved rhymes. It sings of a dashing brigand, the half-wit who in a fit of jealousy betrays him, and the innkeeper’s daughter who gives her life to protect him.

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
And he taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred:
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

As I read, I clearly see a galleon moon tossed on cloud-flecked seas of night, a heather-covered moor, an ancient inn with its locked shutters, the daring highwayman and Bess, plaiting love-knots in her long, wavy hair. And suddenly I’m transported back through the years to the schoolroom of my childhood where I first heard not only that poem but many others like it. Wonderful poems. Singing poems. Poems that carried me to distant lands and climes.
It is a little country schoolhouse, worn and old with single-pane windows rattling in a fierce November storm and only a small coal-oil stove to warm the drafty classroom. Penmanship posters showing proper placement of each letter of the alphabet line the walls. They are flanked by framed reproductions of famous paintings; Millet’s The Gleaners, Bonheur’s The Horse Fair, Sully’s The Torn Hat, Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church—the latter particularly appropriate to our current study of the first Thanksgiving.

It is late on a Friday morning. The weekly spelling bee is over. (Tom went down on ‘dolichocephalic’ but Cynthia spelled it right, making her this week’s winner.) The quiet, fierce concentration dominating the room slowly dissipates, replaced by growing anticipation. Now is the one time during the week when we forget the icy drafts, the whistling wind, and the driving snow. Spelling, reading, social studies, arithmetic all fade into the background as each student takes a turn standing in front of the stove to recite poetry.

“All poetry should make one think and feel—except nonsense rhyme which gives a release.”

Startled laughter sweeps the room at little Becky Ann’s nonsense version of an old nursery rhyme:
Hickory, dickery, dock
Three mice ran up the clock
The clock struck one
The other two escaped with minor injuries.

Even our teacher, who prides herself on keeping a straight face, is hard put to resist Becky’s white-blond curls, wide blue eyes and patent innocence. Everyone knows her father taught her that ‘verse’.

Some of the students choose the shortest poems they can find:

An open foe may prove a curse,
But a pretended friend is worse.
(Benjamin Franklin — Poor Richard’s Almanac)

“Short and sweet and can’t be beat,” Doug mutters under his breath. He’s chosen a much longer poem; one appropriate to the season. As he stands to recite, the shrieking storm outside our little school building heightens the atmosphere and we are transported to a distant place and a former time. We hear waves crash against a rocky shore. The scream of an ocean eagle shrills as icy foam flies through bracing salt-brine air.

“The breaking waves dashed high,” he begins
“On a stern and rock-bound coast.
And the woods against a stormy sky,
Their giant branches tossed;

“And the heavy night hung dark,
The hills and waters o’er,
When a band of exiles moored their bark
On the wild New England shore.”

Pausing momentarily, he looks around the room.

“Not as the conqueror comes,” he explains,
“They, the true-hearted came;
Not with the roll of the stirring drums,
And the trumpet that sings of fame;

“Not as the flying come,
In silence and in fear;—
They shook the depths of the desert gloom
With their hymns of lofty cheer.

“Amidst the storm they sang,
And the stars heard, and the sea;”
His voice rises
“And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang
To the anthem of the free.

“The ocean eagle soared
From his nest by the white wave’s foam;
And the rocking pines of the forest roared—
This,” he pauses, dramatically, “was their welcome home.

“There were men with hoary hair
Amidst that pilgrim band;
Why had they come to wither there,
Away from their childhood’s land?

“There was a woman’s fearless eye,
Lit by her deep love’s truth;
There was manhood’s brow serenely high,
He again pauses, touching his chest.
And the fiery heart of youth.”

“What sought they thus afar?
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?”
He shakes his head, his voice firm.
“They sought a faith’s pure shrine!

“Aye,” he pauses, once again, “call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod;
They have left unstained what there they found—
Freedom to worship God.”

(Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers — Felicia Hemans)

From those Friday morning poetry recitations, we learned to laugh, to imagine, and to feel a fierce reverence for the sacrifices of our forefathers. Thank God for such an education.

And thank God for poetry!