About a year ago, I was charmed to see Caroline Kennedy, promoting a collection of her mother’s favorite poems, being interviewed on television.
It wasn’t that I was particularly interested in Jackie’s literary taste, but I was riveted by the fact that Caroline easily recited several poems, without faltering, by request.
And here I sit, just about able to croak out Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” learned in the fifth grade.
But it wasn’t always that way! Because I grew up in a household with a father whose greatest hits included Shakespeare, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” when I held out my hand and took for granted my 25 cents pocket money, and Byron’s, “She walks in beauty, like the night, of cloudless climes and starry skies;” upon gazing at each full moon, that, I suppose, like osmosis, a love of language began stirring deeply within my 12-year-old heart.
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It breaks this now-middle aged ticker to learn that school children are no longer required to commit poems to memory in order to be well-rounded –what a sad commentary indeed!
Because poetry is fun for kids –oh, yes it is! Banish from your brain the thought of Breanna and Justin standing, mocked, in front of the class as they stumble through “Hiawatha,” and chant along with my sister and me, in the London underground, reciting ad nauseam, because it was wonderfully macabre, “Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch ones eyes!”
My mother, fed up to her teeth with the rhyme and wishing she’d never given us the book from which it came to pass the time during our trip, acquiesced to add,
“Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had Kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda,
The effort very nearly killed her....”
I won’t tell you the entire Belloc masterpiece, but I will reveal that it is the sort of yummy thing in which a child delights because it ends with Matilda crying wolf so many times to bring out the “fire brigade” in her central London home that:
“That Night a Fire did break out--
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street--
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) -- but all in vain!
For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.”
Now, isn’t that delicious? What child wouldn’t want to learn such a poem that’s all about a nasty little girl getting her comeuppance? Besides the fact that it’s enjoyable to recite, poetry is a tremendous tool for increasing vocabulary (and if you’ve ever watched anyone interviewed by the local news, regarding their eye-witness account of a body dumped somewhere in a county that begins with the letter, ‘A’, you should find this thought most welcome).
When we reached Bavaria, and were in the backseat of a rented Opel Kadett, shared with our formidable Aunt Ann, no one was spared our homage to Irish songwriter Tom Lehrer:
“One morning in a fit of pique,
One morning in a fit of pique,
She drowned her father in the creek,
The water tasted bad for a week,
And we had to make do with gin, with gin,
We had to make do with gin.”
At some point in our journey, my father ran head-on into a worker’s van coming the opposite direction, the crumbling shoulder of the mountainous road with its sheer drop coming perilously close as we spun around, but I don’t think it had anything to do with our recitation, although we were told to “shut the bloody h–– up,” which we did.
It’s common knowledge that a certain song or smell can take us immediately upon a nostalgic journey to another time or place. I will add that, in the homes of children who are privileged enough to have parents read poetry to them, the created intimate familial bond remains forever.
To this day, I can only say to my sister, “Matilda...” and know exactly her reply to be.