I came to poetry late. Growing up, my family had one small book of poetry. The only two poems that I remember from it were Paul Revere’s Ride by H.W. Longfellow and The Daffodils by W. Wordsworth. They made little to no impression on me. I read them and wondered why anyone would bother to read poetry at all. It seemed dull, at best. In high school, I ended up with the ninth grade English teacher who didn’t believe in old-fashioned things like memorizing speeches and poems like the other ninth grade English teacher. At the time, I considered myself fortunate to be able to journal and read interesting new books and express myself; looking back, I see that the other students with the old-fashioned teacher who read the traditional books and made them memorize beautiful words had the better portion.
I first really encountered poetry not long after graduating from college. I was reading a book and came across an excerpt of a poem by John Donne, Eclogue: at the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset
“Now, as in Tullia’s tomb, one lamp burnt clear,
Unchanged for fifteen hundred year,
May these love-lamps we here enshrine,
In warmth, light, lasting, equal the divine.
Fire ever doth aspire,
And makes all like itself, turns all to fire,
But ends in ashes; which these cannot do,
For none of these is fuel, but fire too.
This is joy’s bonfire, then, where love’s strong arts
Make of so noble individual parts
One fire of four inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.”
I read this poem over and over and the meaning seeped into me and I thought, “How wonderful! What else has this guy written?” So I went to the library and found a book of poetry by John Donne and began to read. No one told me that John Donne was probably not the best poet with which to start my poetry journey and I only understood a fraction of what I read, but I was entranced by his words, by the ideas, by the images which arose in my heart and mind as I read his poetry so I kept reading. Then I began to look for poetry in the books that I read and “discovered” George Herbert and Christina Rossetti and others. What riches!
By this time I began having children and we read Mother Goose rhymes and sang songs together. When my oldest son started kindergarten, the curriculum I was using included a coloring book with Robert Louis Stevenson poems for children. I would read the poem and my son would color the pictures. The next year, another poet was suggested and I began to read poetry to my children as part of school and eventually we read it over dinner or just because we were in the mood. Bed in Summer by R.L. Stevenson, the Sing Song poems by C. Rossetti, When Daddy Fell Into the Pond by Alfred Noyes, The Sugarplum Tree and Wynken, Blynken, and Nod by Eugene Field, The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash, T.S. Eliot’s cat poems, and so many others. We read and re-read our favorites. We read Milne’s books of poetry for children and volumes of nonsense verse along with many anthologies.
We began memorizing poems more systematically after I read this post at The Common Room Blog and managed to get my hands on my own copy of Penny Candy by Jean Kerr so I could read the original chapter the DHM mentions in her post. With wonderful poetry lists at Ambleside Online, we were off. Each boy had his own poet and we read a poem daily while each child worked on memorizing a poem. Sometimes I chose poems for them to memorize; sometimes they chose their own. They memorized so many wonderful poems and although I don’t know how many of the poems they remember completely, their vocabulary and turns of phrase and ways with words have been permanently enriched.
These days we are reading an anthology of Modern Poetry with my high school senior and Lord Byron with my freshman. Both boys are memorizing If by Rudyard Kipling. Sometimes we like a poem, sometimes we are bewildered by a poem, sometimes we hate the poem, sometimes we abandon a poet as being too annoying, but we keep reading poetry because it is part of our lives.
Who reads poetry these days? Our family does and I heartily recommend that you read poetry, too. You will be glad you did.