Today is the last day of National Poetry Month, and I’ve read once again this year that poetry is dying. But it’s not. I’ll tell you why.
The old-fashioned, iambic, rhyming poetry can be a big part of a good childhood. It is satisfying to a human brain in its playful state. We know that children are affected by rhythm. Healthy children rock and swing, and unhealthy children knock their heads against the walls. Nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and Edward Leary and every song lyric you’ve ever heard have rhythm and rhyme.
There was an old woman lived under the hill,
And if she's not gone she lives there still.
You see a large number of noses turn up when you mention poetry, but I’d venture to say that a majority of ordinary folks enjoy the universal wisdom in the simple kind of poetry, and they don’t buy poetry journals or get interviewed by Newsweek or read bare modern poetry. But they know you don’t fall asleep under a haystack while you’re supposed to be watching sheep and that you have to let your light shine, as well as
Thirty days has September,
April, June, and November.
I before E except after C
and when it says A
as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”
I studied contemporary American poetry as a master’s candidate. I like poetry that doesn’t rhyme, poetry that is hard to figure out, poetry that is translated from other languages, and poetry that emphasizes concision and intellect and symbol. But I really like the pleasure of a good rhyming poem, especially the fun of saying it aloud. Think about what happens when you hear the first bars of a song you haven’t heard for years: You start singing, without thinking, because your brain has stored the lyrics away in stanzas, with a chorus, a tune, and a beat. As poetry.
Fats and Skinny sleeping in the bed.
Fats rolled over, and Skinny was dead.
Some of the best moments I have ever spent in this life involved the energy and clarity of a good rhyming poem. When I was small, my mother would read to me. She was a good reader with a variety of voices and the timing of a dramatic actress, and I felt completely cheated if I had to go to bed without a private performance.
We’re three little kittens.
We’ve lost our mittens.
Birds in a pie, cows over the moon, highwaymen, ghosts, nightmare horses, dragons and fairies and porridge. I learned to make that magic for myself when I had to, because the poetry that my mother read to me stuck in my mind without effort. The words kept me calm and slowed my breathing and occupied the time until sleep came for me.
When I was a little boy, I lived by myself,
And all the bread and cheese I got I put upon a shelf;
A few years later, I read to my sister, speaking the voices as my mother had, pausing for effect, stretching a rhyme here and there to add to the drama. I enjoyed playing my mother’s role, especially if I was wearing her high heels while I read. I passed the rhythms and rhymes to my sister, and she would eventually carry them to her brood of children. I hope she did. Our favorite was the poem in the big red book in which a little girl entreats her doll to explain why she ignores her:
Matilda Jane, you never look
at any toys or picture books.
I show you pretty things in vain,
You must be blind, Matilda Jane.
I read to my youngest sister and my little brother too. I went to college where I wrote and read my own poetry. My son and I spent hours and days reading together. I had a much larger repertoire of voices by then, and I delighted in the fact that I could mesmerize him with the same old tales that were magical to me.
The time has come, the walrus said,
To speak of many things.
Even now someone in my family will recite a line from a poem we used to read together:
Did I ever tell you about Mrs. McCabe?
and someone else will answer with the next line:
She had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave.
and so on…
Our first poems are the best. They contain lessons and mysteries and history. They tickle the brain and worm in deep and stay a long time and disappear last. Poetry is not dying. It’s not even ill.
*My apologies to any poet I misquoted. I thought it would be fun to see how accurate my memory is. Okay. I was too lazy to look things up.