My eyeballs swim a little as I recline against my blue pillow in the lamplight, my mug of wassailed wine almost finished and warm in my interior regions. Behind the bathroom door water fills the tub where my son has decided to bathe before bed. I never was a mother that required frequent baths–such a waste of water, except where there is a layer of mud, paint, or sweat. Yet a bath is such a comfort when one has spent time shivering in wet weather, tension, or sadness, or wishes to play with bubbles or boats. This is a fine use of the precious resource of water. Especially if the bather is relatively clean and may offer the full tub to the next in line, improved by a few minutes’ blast on hot.
My tabby cat appeals to me to open the window, eyes perpetually alarmed, seeking her safe exit away from the indefatigable new puppy. I meet her gaze and speak to her, and she answers with affectionate and musical rumblings, is soothed, jumps on the bed and commences her toilette. White breast fur, base of tail, then holding hind legs extended, she lathers her thighs with feline saliva and applies her brush tongue.
And so I recline with my library copy of The Masks of Drought by William Everson. Funny the convergences that bring one such as myself to an appreciation of poetry. Country kid, never taught poetry beyond limericks, cinquains and haiku in elementary school, hated language arts class in middle school–in fact I seem to have blanked out the entire experience and can’t even remember who the teacher was. Avoided honors English in high school because I couldn’t stand required reading lists and book reports, and even took an alternate route to the university writing requirement by attaching a periodic hour-long no-prep essay-writing assessment to a German class, along with mostly foreign students. I studied marine biology and associated subjects, and even when I got interested in history and other social sciences, I still avoided English classes. So obviously school had nothing to do with it.
What it was, in an age prior to the revival of homeschooling, was immersion in a literature loving household, access to walls and walls of books, and catching the delight my parents had in sharing reading and writing. I read stories, nonfiction stuff on science and outdoor skills, field guides even, no poetry as such. But there were poems in stories by C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and others, books of Shel Silverstein lying about, and I did love to play with words in my spare time. Also, my father would bring home stacks of library books from the children’s section that he thought were particularly lovely. He would read every one and leave them for us to share. Of course we had the opportunity to select our own books, but didn’t want us to be limited to our own small perspectives. When my children would get in the habit of making a beeline for the Tin Tin, Star Wars, or other current craze sections to the exclusion of all others, I would do the same–go through the picture books, meanwhile, and find one, find another, avoiding anything preachy, ad-like (some books are thinly veiled promotions for reading, school, or certain perspectives on issues, have you noticed?), dumbed-down (as if children have no depth or need monotonous language or simple patterns to understand), most series books, those whose authors have forgotten how to think as a child (some of these books are nevertheless award winners, as they appeal to the adult aesthetic of judge panels–similar dynamic in award-winning games). I’d stack them ready by the couch, and they’d invariably be a source of delight even to my older children.
The clincher of my love of poetry (I’ve mentioned it before, I know): the memory of that magical moment at my uncle’s fishing camp on the Gander River, when I was about fifteen: my uncle and my father got to reciting poetry they had learned in grade school, completing one another’s lines, and pausing, speechless with emotion.
Despite the availability of good language arts programs and teachers in schools, I still believe the most powerful influences on children’s tastes come from home life, and so I have happily shared my love of poetry (and other literature) with my children, confident that what they have read, memorized and written will become fodder for a richer experience and understanding of life. Part of my responsibility to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov 22:6) I see the fruit of what my parents have passed on to me in my own children, and it is good.
I share this with you, parents, teachers, and others, not with a list of “ten ways” bullet points, but with my story, and the invitation to draw the young under your care into an appreciation of poetry, not limiting your sharing to what you think they can understand or enjoy but what delights you, what you find beautiful, worthy, enriching. If I have time I’ll share a list of our favorite poets and poetry books, but for now, just go to the library and see what you can find.