April is National Poetry Month and, in honor of that fact, I have decided to re-read (or at least skim) and review some of my favorites. For me, thatApril is National Poetry Month and, in honor of that fact, I have decided to re-read (or at least skim) and review some of my favorites. For me, that always starts with Robert Frost.
I discovered the poetry of Robert Frost, as I discovered so many things, in college. In my Speech class, one of my assignments required me to deliver a speech including favorite poems. I didn't really have favorite poems. As I searched my memory for what I might use, I remembered the inauguration of John F. Kennedy several years before. The school that I attended at the time had gathered all of the students into the auditorium in assembly and played the inauguration for us on television. Thus, I saw the poet with the shock of white hair, on that snow-covered day, delivering his poem as part of the ceremony. And, all those years later, I had an epiphany. I thought, "Ah ha! I'll do Robert Frost."
But, of course, I didn't really know much about Robert Frost and I didn't have a favorite poem of his, so I had to do a little research.
It didn't take long for me to feel a connection with his poetry. I found that it was based on rural themes and was about ordinary people, two things that were very familiar to me, having grown up in the country on a farm. Moreover, it was written in a deceptively simple manner, in vernacular that was easily understood. The settings of his poems were mostly in New England and I had grown up in the South, but it all felt very comfortable and homey to me.
That was when I first read Complete Poems of Robert Frost. I have returned to it many, many times in the years since. My book's cover and pages have water stains and there are teeth marks from a long-dead dog who took a liking to it and gnawed away one corner of the hardback. There are post-it notes stuck throughout the book, marking favorite poems. It is a book that has been loved almost to death but still it hangs together, even if in fragile condition.
There are many favorites among the poems of this book, but I return again and again to two; one because it reminds me of my own childhood when I was a rider of tree saplings and the other because it states so very simply much of what I believe.
The first one is Birches. It describes a boy swinging on birches that had been bent down by ice storms. It speaks of the joy which he derives from this simple act, this boy "too far from town to learn baseball, whose only play was what he found himself." The poet admits that he, too, was once a "swinger of birches." And the poem ends:
I'd like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth's the right place for love: I don't know where it's likely to go better. I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, But dipped its top and set me down again. That would be good both going and coming back. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
The other poem that means a lot to me, especially since I've become a habitat gardener is The Tuft of Flowers. It describes the poet going to turn grass that has been mowed for hay and seeing a butterfly flitting here and there searching for some remembered stand of flowers, now gone. As he watches the butterfly, it draws his eye to a patch of flowers the scythe had spared.
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
The mower in the dew had love them thus, By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him, But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
The butterfly and I had lit upon, Nevertheless, a message from the dawn...
And as the poem ends, the poet feels a kinship with the mower, "a spirit kindred to my own." He had previously felt alone in the field but now he sees that we are all in this together - the mower, the turner of the grass, the butterfly, and in silent conversation with the mower who has now moved on, he says:
"Men work together, I told him from the heart, Whether they work together or apart."
A deceptively simple poem with a deeper meaning for those who take the time to find that "tuft of flowers." That was Robert Frost. That's why I love his poems.
When my kids were little, among our favorite books to read together was Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. Indeed, one of the best excuses fWhen my kids were little, among our favorite books to read together was Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. Indeed, one of the best excuses for having kids was reading Silverstein's poetry!
Where the Sidewalk Ends was his first collection of poems. He had had a successful career as a songwriter, playwright, and cartoonist before someone suggested to him that he should write poetry for children. He subsequently became most well-known for such work. He wrote The Giving Tree, a favorite of ours, and A Light in the Attic, another collection of poems which my kids and I enjoyed, but we returned often to the nonsense poetry of Where the Sidewalk Ends.
I think my kids' favorite poem was Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out. The obstinate little girl ultimately "met an awful fate" because of her refusal to do her assigned chore. We also enjoyed reading about the girl who ate a whale, unicorns, crocodiles who went to the dentist, and a boy who turned into a television set. All these poems were wonderful vehicles for the imagination, and isn't that really what you want from poetry?
One of the things that made Silverstein's poems so effective for children was not just the nonsense that made them giggle and set their imaginations free but the wonderful drawings that illustrated them. Silverstein had been a cartoonist before he became a poet and he always illustrated his poems with his wonderful drawings.
While Silverstein's poems were often outrageously funny, they also frequently contained profound truths that kids imbibed along with the humor. Here's an example of that, a short poem that I very much liked that appeared early in the book. It is called Magic.
Sandra's seen a leprechaun. Eddie touched a troll. Laurie danced with witches once. Charlie found some goblins' gold. Donald heard a mermaid sing. Susy spied an elf. But all the magic I have known I've had to make myself.
These poems helped kids - and their parents - learn to make magic for themselves and that is a gift that keeps on giving for a lifetime.
This is my very favorite Silverstein book. I keep a copy of it on the coffee table in my den and I pick it up and re-read it when I need to be remindeThis is my very favorite Silverstein book. I keep a copy of it on the coffee table in my den and I pick it up and re-read it when I need to be reminded of what it is to truly love someone....more
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour, Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his half cours y-ronne And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen al the nyght with open yë (So priketh hem nature in hir corages), Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes; And specially from every shires ende Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende...
How many of us spent part of our freshman year in college learning that prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English and then struggling to recite it for our English literature professor? Surprisingly, although I can't always remember what I did last week, I can still remember much of that prologue that I learned all of those long years ago.
I think it is the lyricism, the lilting cadence of the thing, that makes it so memorable. That was a feature of the Middle English in which Chaucer wrote. This week, I read a modern English translation by David Wright for Oxford World's Classics of the entire work and I felt it had that same quality of lyricism. It seemed very true to the original.
In college, I read the excerpts that were required reading for my literature class, but I had never read the work in its entirety. Several books that I have read this year, both fiction and nonfiction, have dealt with this period in history, and, in particular, Barbara Tuchman's excellent A Distant Mirror about the 14th century made several references to Chaucer and to his masterwork. It piqued my interest and made me decide to read the whole thing.
The setting of the tales is that a group of diverse pilgrims are about to make their way from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral to worship at the site where Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered. To amuse themselves along the way, they agree to a competition in which each will tell a story. At the end, the teller of the story which is judged best will receive a free meal at the Tabard Inn back in Southwark, the meal to be paid for by the other pilgrims. Among the pilgrims is Chaucer who records the tales.
Many of the pilgrims are officials of the Church or are in some way tied to the Church and Chaucer is unsparing in his depiction of these characters. They are mostly venal, greedy, often licentious beings who are completely devoid of Jesus' empathy for the poor and downtrodden.
Especially are they devoid of any empathy or understanding for the lives of women. Perhaps because I am a woman, I was particularly and acutely sensitive to the portrayal of the women in the tales. For the most part, they are either idealized, chaste, saintly beings, an image worshiped by chivalric knights, or else they are complete bawds, living only for the pleasures of the bed. If they are married - and almost all of them are - their chief goal in life is to make a cuckold of their husbands. The married men in the party who tell tales of wives depict them as harridans, as violent creatures who cheat and beat their husbands and get their comeuppance in the end.
One wonders why Chaucer's tales so characterized women. Was he simply reporting the common themes of the day? Were his cartoonish portrayals of women his sly and satirical way of making a point, somewhat like Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal? Was he, in short, a 14th century feminist trying to bring change to a world view that was totally hostile to women?
Incidentally, Barbara Tuchman, whose book pointed out the similarities between the 14th century and our own time, would likely be quick to see the analogy between the Church's attitude toward women in the 14th century and the Church's attitude toward women today. Not much progress there, I'm afraid.
The 14th century was, of course, a God-obsessed period and nearly all of the tales relate in some way to the Bible or theology. My two favorites among the stories, though, were mostly free of such associations.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" introduces us to a woman who has buried five husbands and is on the lookout for a sixth! She may be as close to being liberated as a 14th century woman could be and she has a joy in life and a bawdy sense of humor which is totally infectious. I loved the Wife of Bath!
My second favorite story was "The Nun's Priest's Tale" perhaps because some of my favorite animals are chickens. This story is a retelling of a popular Middle Ages parable about the rooster and the fox. In this case, it's the tale of Chantecleer and his favorite hen Pertelote and the dastardly fox Renard. The priest does manage to get in a dig at women in that it is Pertelote's advice which causes her beloved Chantecleer to be caught by the fox. Never fear, though. As always in these stories, the rooster outfoxes the fox!
This was a wonderful read. It really stands up well over the six centuries since its writing. The bawdy, irreverent tone is not so different from something you might see on late-night television today. I'm not sure if that is such a wonderful recommendation, but I guess what I mean to say is, the world really hasn't changed much since Chaucer's time. He and his other pilgrims would fit right in today. ...more
The only thing that the poems in this book really all have in common is an American voice and sense of place, and so they are especially appealing toThe only thing that the poems in this book really all have in common is an American voice and sense of place, and so they are especially appealing to an American reader. I'm not sure if they would be equally as appealing to readers from other parts of the world, unless it were a reader who was struggling to get a sense of what these crazy Americans are all about. Overall, the book is a profile of the quirkiness and diversity that is America.
There are so many good poems here but two stand out in my mind as favorites. The first is John Updike's "Baseball," not surprising perhaps since I am a baseball fan and an Updike fan. The second is "Why I Have A Crush On You, UPS Man" by Alice N. Persons. What can I say? As one who looks forward to visits from her UPS man, I could relate....more