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National Poetry Month and the Culture Hour

Penny Candy by Jean Kerr

Penny Candy by Jean Kerr contains an essay, The Poet and the Peasants, the Peasants being Jean’s five sons and their forced introduction into the world of poetry.

All through April people will be celebrating National Poetry Month, giving gift books of poetry and attending poetry readings. However, I think National Poetry Month (instituted in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets) was created as a response to the lack of attention to poetry and its joys. Actually, we are surrounded by poetry in advertising jingles, popular songs (at least that used to be true) even when we are not aware.

Last week I started thinking about Great Moments of Poetry in my life. In high school, several eons ago, Miss Pierce made us memorize Wordsworth’s The World is Too Much With Us.  I still seem to be able to recite parts of this sonnet, but not quite all of it together. However, you should hear me crying out, “Great God! I’d rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn. . . .have sight of Proteus rising from the seas; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn!”  I was in the dramatic society and remain a bit dramatic to this day. We had to memorize several poems of our own choosing but this was the only required poem. Even as a student I thought it was notable that as students living in a very wealthy town (Greenwich, Connecticut) our teacher might worry about the possibility of our laying  waste to our powers and always looking only at the bottom line.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
 When my children were young  I read an essay by Jean Kerr, wife of NYT drama critic Walter Kerr, titled The Poet and the Peasants. The Kerrs had six children, Christopher, twins Colin and John, Gilbert, Gregory, and Kitty who came along a bit later. One night Jean came into the den and turned on a light which went out. She turned on another light, which went out. In exasperation she muttered, “When I consider how my light is spent. . . .” and her husband wanted to know what poem that was from (Milton’s Sonnet on His Blindness).  Spousal horror and argument followed which ended as they thought about their five boys. Would they be able to identify a snippet of a famous poem when they heard it?

Thus was born weekly Culture Night which went through an evolving series of forms until it settled on requiring each boy to memorize a poem and recite it at Culture Night. The boys began with limericks. Not really what Jean had in mind. There was mumbling and dum-de-dumming rhythms. You can imagine the kind of encouragements Mom and Dad offered to achieve their goal. I give them high marks for not giving up the whole idea.

Culture Night, really Poetry Night, continued for years and the boys did get into it, even elucidating for their parents the meaning of a poem. Jean gives bits of poems that the boys recited with passion, roaring or weeping. She said you have not lived until a flamboyant 12 year old has leapt onto the coffee table and declaimed Alfred Noyes poem The Highwayman:

The Wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding –

   Riding – riding –

The highwayman came riding up to the old inn door.

And this flamboyant boy was also able to give tenderness to his reading of the love story of the highwayman and the innkeeper’s daughter. Alas, the story does not have a happy ending.

I remember reading and memorizing part of The Highwayman in high school, but not the whole. The Kerr boys recited many poems I knew and read like bits of  A. E. Houseman’s “When I was young and twenty . .   .”  and  Robert Browning’s That’s my last Duchess on the wall,/Looking as if she were alive. . . which was a poem that chilled me as the Duke “… gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together.”

I can never finish this essay without weeping. What can a mother do when two of her sons see into her heart when referring to and making connections to two poems,  Robert Burns’ John Anderson my jo, John, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall, “Margaret, are you grieving over goldengrove unleaving . . .

This essay appears with several others in Penny Candy (1966) by Jean Kerr. Several copies of the book are available through the CWMARS Library catalog, along with other books by Jean Kerr, My copy is worn but I will not do without it.

2 comments to National Poetry Month and the Culture Hour

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    What fun it would be to have a poetry night at home.
    I will never forget the moment I realized that most songs were poems put to music. Quite the revelation.

  • Pat

    Lisa – Poetry has many faces. Lucky for us.

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