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.
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.