What’s the first poem that you remember hearing? Not a nursery rhyme, but a “real” poem, written by a named poet. For me, it could have been Odgen Nash’s Tale of Custard the Dragon, that I remember my mother reading:
Belinda lived in a little white house,
With a little black kitten and a little gray mouse,
And a little yellow dog and a little red wagon,
And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.
But it could have been my Granddaddy Maxwell reciting poems from memory — “Casey Jones” or “Casey at the Bat” or the spooky “Cremation of Sam McGee”:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
I loved listening to Granddaddy’s deep voice tell the stories in the poems, and the rhythm and humor as Mama read to me from Ogden Nash. I couldn’t tell you which childhood memory was earlier.
As a young teen, a “Poets in the Schools” program in South Carolina public schools introduced me to unrhymed poetry like e.e. cummings, and structural poetry like haiku and acrostic verse. Our classes had great fun writing our own poems – even kids who weren’t usually enthusiastic in English class. A few of us were even published in a statewide poetry journal.
When I was in high school, I can remember getting an e.e. cummings book from a secret admirer — how romantic, that was. I wonder if he remembers it now.
When I was in college, I took a women’s lit course and learned about Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich, and my favorite for the class, Denise Levertov. What a treat to be studying famous modern women poets — and getting college credit to boot!
Nowadays, I rarely write any poetry, but it still runs a thread in my life. I’ve helped my daughter memorize poems for her class play auditions. We’ve used verses from “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” and from T.S. Eliot’s “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer.” We got the idea to do that latter one when we were listening to the Cats soundtrack.
Father God, I am clay in your hands
Help me to stay that way through all life’s demands
‘Cause they chip and they nag and they pull at me
And every little thing I make up my mind to be
Like I’m gonna be a daddy whose in the mix
And I’m gonna be a husband who stays legit
And I pray that I’m an artist who rises above
The road that is wide and filled with self love
Everything that I see draws me
Though its only in You that I can truly see
That its a feast for the eyes – a low blow to purpose
And I’m a little kid at a three ring circus
It’s good poetry – and the album made #3 on the Billboard Rock chart! How cool is that.
I wonder sometimes, if today’s rappers got their poetry roots from the Poets in Schools programs. Or if, like me, the thread goes further back, to their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and Sam McGee. It doesn’t much matter where it came from, I guess, but to me it’s truly wonderful that the love of poetry keeps going.