And then there are the Shakespeare sonnets. "Golden lads and girls all must, like chimney sweepers, come to dust."
And Robert Frost:
I will be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence.
Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference."
Walt Whitman and Longfellow, Kublai Khan and The Lady of Shalot--they all still linger somewhere in the back of my memory, to be called upon when needed.
Learning these poems not only gave me a love for the power of words to evoke images and emotions, but reciting them in front of other people gave me the tools I use all the time today for public speaking. My grandparents, in the days before radio and TV, learned to recite long poems and dramatic scenes to entertain each other on long winter evenings. My great aunt could recite the whole of her favorite Shakespeare plays.
And now this seems to be a lost art form.
So dear Reds: did you have to learn poetry? Which poems moved you and inspired you? Which could you still recite today?
HALLIE EPHRON: I did have to learn poetry. Annabelle Lee. And Evangeline. Barbara Fritchie. When lilacs Last by the dooryard bloomed... But the ones I remember are the ones my mother read to me. And so funny that you should post about this, Rhys, because having our grandbaby visiting this holiday had me scurrying about to find our book of children's poems with my mother's favorites. Wynken, Blynken and Nod (Eugene Field). The Owl and the Pussycat (Edward Lear). And of course all of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Clement Clarke Moore). Language is a lovely thing.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Yes, had to learn poetry in school and recite it. One poem was Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" — which came back in a flood when I took a train through the highlands of Scotland! Another was Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day." I'm also pretty good at remembering odd verses and couplets — they pop unbidden into my mind at odd times and are very much with me. One poem that's been on my mind a lot, especially as I write about war and conflict is Shakespeare's Sonnet 95, "They That Have the Power to Hurt and Will Do None":
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
LUCY BURDETTE: No, don't remember having to memorize or recite poetry in school but it seems like a good idea! We had A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES on our bookshelf, and my parents read to us a lot. Oh, and do you remember the poetry about the GOOPS by Gelett Burgess? Loved those!
The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth--
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
And the book had the cutest illustrations too!
The Goops they have no manners
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I can't recall if memorization was required, but I definitely socked a lot of poetry (and Shakespeare) away in my youth. I can pull up quotes and stanzas from any number of poets, although the number of poems I can recite from start to finish seems to be limited to silly stuff like "The Jaberwocky" or ones that have been set to music, like "My Luv is Like a Red, Red Rose." Speaking of Scottish verse, I can deliver the whole of Walter Scott's "Lochinvar" at a gallop. Great for entertaining youngsters.
Parochial schools are the only ones that seem to be doing old-fashioned things like memorization and cursive writing. My two oldest both had to memorize "Paul Revere's Ride" by Portland native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (They also both visited Longfellow's house in Portland, which is a fascinating slice of mid-19th century Americana.)
I love having some poetry at hand, if only because when I see lilacs it reminds me of Whitman and then I can dive into his poems again.
RHYS: Julia, you live close enough to Robert Frost's farm. I did the poetry walk there once. So moving.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: OH, I wish I remembered more! We were supposed to memorize, but as a self-styled rebellious student, when I was told to memorize 100 lines of Shakespeare, for instance, I remember thinking I'd simply memorize 100 separate lines, clever me. So I had "what, you egg, young fry of treachery!" and 99 more. I finally realized it would be better to do actual soliloquies, so for a long time I had "What a piece of work is man" and of course "To be or not to be." I still can do Frost's Stopping By Woods and The Road Not Taken (which is so much more poignant now than when I was 13), and Poe's The Bells and the Spoon River poems,
Then, in college, I got SO serious.
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
I got happier as years went by.
But there's nothing more wonderful, I have to say, than hearing my two grandsons (6 and 12) recite, perfectly and with MUCH drama, the entire Jabberwocky. It was amazing! I am teaching them James James Morrison Morrison.
RHYS: It's strange that you should mention James James, Hank, as I just read Louise Penny's January newsletter (go read it on her website, it's amazing. http://ukimages.gmimage3.com/new/viewnewsletter2.aspx…
One can see why she's a best-selling author, as well as a very dear friend!) Louise talks about A.A. Milne instilling in her a love of words and poetry.