Monday, January 4, 2016

Joining the Dead Poet's Society

RHYS BOWEN: I've just had a week of family togetherness--children, spouses, grandchildren and a lot of singing, laughing and reminiscing. I expressed surprise that the children didn't know any Christmas carols by heart, and then, when the discussion turned to learning by heart I was dismayed to find that children are not required to learn any poetry by heart in school these days. Learning poems and reciting them in front of the class was a part of English lessons that I relished. I'm sure my love of words was fostered by the wealth of poetry we had to learn: I can still say the whole of Matthew Arnold's The Forsaken Merman by heart. I still get chills when I recite "The Listeners." I still get teary eyed at Keat's "When I have fears that I shall cease to be," and am moved by Gerard Manley Hopkins's "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day."

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
The Goops

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

And Yeats:

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,

And Auden:

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.…

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.
Then of course I realized this was absolutely the same for me. Those poems were at the heart of my childhood. James James and They're Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace. All fabulous to recite out loud. Make sure your kids and grandchildren learn them!


  1. I've always enjoyed Shel Silverstein; I don't remember memorizing lots of poems in school, but we did on occasion do that.

    My forever-favorite [which I can indeed recite] is Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" . . . .

  2. I don't remember being made to memorize poetry in school, but of course we learned James, James Morrison, Morrison. The Goops. The Jabberwocky. Twas the Night Before Christmas (my sons learned it by heart, too). But no one has mentioned Biblical memorization: "Yea, thou I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil. For thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. ... Thou leadest me to walk beside cool waters. Thou restorest my soul." And so on, although I imagine I have just fractured the Twenty-Third Psalm a bit. It's been a while. I must remember to bring out Milne next time the kiddos are over.


  3. Hank told me my post yesterday was somewhat prescient, and so it was as I just picked up several volumes of poetry over the Christmas holidays.

    I do remember memorizing poetry in school, and can still pull up the odd piece. I wasn't that crazy about it then, truth be told.

    It wasn't until later when I started discovering some amazing contemporary poets that my appreciation really began to bloom.

    I try to share some of them at Meanderings and Muses each year in April, which is National Poetry Month.

    This is one I post every year -

    Variation on a Theme by King David

    Praise to you!
    Praise to you my snappy love!

    Praise you in clean socks on a Queens-bound
    train; praise you
    for your famous avocado
    sandwiches; Praise you from Brooklyn to blasphemy!

    I've called the mayor to praise you; & a third-
    base coach; even
    that no-neck accountant
    who doesn't have the decency to nod hello
    has agreed to praise you!

    Praise you with bongos and fine fancy
    tea; praise you
    with rhumba, tango & marmelade; praise
    you with your knickers at your knees!

    I praise you on Flag Day, & on whichever equinox
    allows for the balancing of eggs;
    I praise you with eggs!
    Brown ones & jumbo & Faberge Tiffany blue!

    On the white of your wrist I praise you;
    on the vaccuumed throw rug; I praise you full-
    page on Sunday! With faxes
    & foxgloves & brushed cotton sheets;
    with sky-write & timbrel &

    wink! Let every soul
    in the Battery Tunnel honk
    her horn to praise you! Praise you
    with ripe limes & wrestling mats;
    praise you tax-free with agates and tin foil
    & all sparkly things!

    Praise you with foggy spectacles and Wisconsin green cheese!
    Praise you to the afternoon of orthopedic sneakers;
    praise you from poinsettia to piccolo!
    Praise you & praise you & praise you!

    My love,
    from Brooklyn to blasphemy I praise you!

    --L. B. Thompson

  4. Oh, Kaye, that poem brings tears to my eyes. Thank you!

    And yes, Joan, I wondered if I cold still do Stopping By Woods--and so funny to be able to.

    Think of all the song lyrics we know. Why is it so easy to remember those? ANd much more difficult to remember a poem?

  5. I was glad to see that someone else had to suffer through Evangeline. I think I appreciate it now, but in 7th grade - not so much. All the others I believe I have read as an adult. I also am a part of an Inter-generational poetry class with "Seniors" ( us) and Freshman or Sophomores at the high school. Those kids are amazing!!!

  6. Oh, Evangeline... Gack. All I can remember is something about bearded breasts.

    This is also making me recall how we liked mangled poetry...
    My love is like a red red rose
    That grows and grows and grows and grows

    We were easily amused.

  7. I did a lot of poetry in high school. Lot of Shakespeare. Part of my senior year was to memorize a soliloquy from Hamlet and it had to be a dramatic recitation (fortunately, only in front of the teacher). Then I went to college and studied English so I hit all the major poets from every time period (over the course of four years).

    My son just studied "Two Woods..." and surprisingly, liked it and displayed a decent understanding. I don't know if he had to memorize it (Catholic school). My girl (Catholic high school) has had to memorize poetry for a number of classes, including English and Communication Skills (one major project was a dramatic poetry recitation). She has memorized bits of Romeo & Juliet, and MacBeth - her favorite thing these days is to say "you egg."

    I can probably still pull up snippets of various poems - I recognize them, at least, when I hear them. And I can probably still get through a dozen or so lines of the "To be or not to be" speech from Hamlet.

  8. Living for a while in Aroostook County, Maine--specifically in the St. John Valley--brought Evangeline to life for me. It was a wonderful experience and it made me read the poem again. We memorized poetry, speeches, one acts (presenter played all the parts) and anything else the nuns could think of. I can't say I remember more than the stray bits and pieces that float up from time to time, but each spoke to me at the time!

  9. My family was very much into Wonderland. We would recite the Jabberwocky and Your Old Father William and Oh, Oysters, come and walk with meals.
    My sister was required to learn a poem and got permission to do Jabberwocky (with a doggeral introduction written by my father--sadly, it is lost).
    I wrote a paper of Lewis Carrol. While researching it I found this wonderful poem.

    And did you really walk, said I
    On such a dreadful night?
    I always fancied ghosts could fly,
    If not exactly in the sky, yet at a fairish height.

    It's very well, he said,
    for kings to soar above the earth,
    but phantoms find that wings,
    like many other things, cost more than they are worth.

  10. Correction

    but phantoms find that wings,
    like many other pleasant things, cost more than they are worth.

  11. That's a good point, Hank. I guess the musical cues help as a memory aid.

    The only poems I can remember having to learn by heart were Jabberwocky and Portia's quality of mercy speech. My middle daughter, at 31, can still reel off Jabberwocky, but I can only recall snatches of it.

    I'm more of a fan of Ogden Nash:

    Candy is dandy,
    But liquor's quicker.

    Men don't make passes at
    Girls who wear glasses.

    A Word To Husbands - Poem by Ogden Nash

    To keep your marriage brimming
    With love in the loving cup,
    Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
    Whenever you’re right, shut up.

    Or, the soul of brevity, Fleas:


  12. Also, our Christmas Eve tradition of reading A Visit by Saint Nicholas is still going on, close to 30 years now. This year, my grandson and his friend alternated stanzas for the gathered company, which was lovely.

    If pressed, I could probably recite most of it by heart.

  13. Oh yes, in Indiana in the 1960's we not only memorized it, we analyzed it. I was one of the weird ones who enjoyed poetry, and I still do. I remember the 8th grade poetry notebook.

  14. I grew up memorizing poetry and it was a central part of my teaching in 5th, 7th, and 8th grades. I used to tell the kids that you would never be bored because you could bring to mind some beautiful language! The thing I loved about having students memorize and perform is that I got to see some of their talents in a new way. The drama! Langston Hughes, "Mother to Son"--

    Well, son, I'll tell you:
    Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
    It's had tacks in it,
    And splinters,
    And boards torn up,
    And places with no carpet on the floor --
    But all the time
    I'se been a-climbin' on,
    And reachin' landin's,
    And turnin' corners,
    And sometimes goin' in the dark
    Where there ain't been no light.
    So boy, don't you turn back.
    Don't you set down on the steps
    'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
    Don't you fall now --
    For I'se still goin', honey,
    I'se still climbin',
    And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

  15. I know we had to do some memorization in school but the only one I remember doing is The Village Blacksmith in sixth grade. I learned Jabberwocky for my own amusement. Twas brillig and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. . .Now if that is wrong blame my memory. I simply cannot remember all of anything anymore. Song lyrics, poems, Shakespeare, any of it. I am so envious of anyone who can recite a poem that fits the occasion from memory. Like all my fictional heroes can. Maybe I'll try reading a poem a day so I can at least spit out a couple of lines. A mighty man was he, with arms like rubber bands.

  16. Really, Mary? "You egg?" SO funny! It was my fave.

    Grandma C--where in Indiana? Were we there together?

    And Evangeline was the forest primeval..Loved that. So much so thatI I went through a phase of telling people my "real" name was Evangeline. Sheesh.

  17. Hank, yes. Especially when talking to her younger brother. The first time she said it, my husband looked at me and asked, "Where did she get that?"

    "Shakespeare," I said.

    He paused. "I have no response to that. How do you question Shakespeare?"

    And all this talk of the Jabberwocky made me see how much of it I remember. I'd estimate about a third of it. Not bad since the last time I read Through the Looking Glass was college.

    "Beware the Jabberwock my son.
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch.
    Beware the Jubjub Bird and shun the Frumious Bandersnatch."

  18. Hi Hank - NW Indiana, Cedar Lake, which is near Hammond, which is near Gary . . . . graduated in 1969.

  19. Dorothy Parker said "Men never make passes at girls who wear glasses."
    Not really poetry, more of a quip.

    She also said “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

  20. Not only don't students need to memorize Poetry, but they don't memorize their multiplication tables either. Students are supposed to "understand" the multiplication concept as repeated addition. Then gradually get themselves into the multiplication tables. For us math teachers it is very difficult when students enter middle school and high school without this knowledge. I've even had adult students ask to use a "multiplication table" sheet, when not allowed a calculator. EEKKK!!!

  21. Speaking of Jabberwocky, my father used to recite the first stanza often so I have that memorized. Fast forwarding many decades later, I decided to give a speech at my Toastmasters club about the poem, its meaning, and the words that the author invented that have become part of our vocabulary. It was so much fun, as I acted it out as well. I even found the poem had been translated into many real and fictional languages, including Choctaw and Klingon (how do you translate nonsense words?)! As a former French major, I recited one of the stanzas in French. The Jabberwock is le Jaseroque, and I'm sure you can figure this one out--le frumieux Band-a-prend!

    I don't remember having to memorize other poems at school, but I'm sure there must have been some of that. I do recall a line here and there--ïnto the Valley of Death" and so on.

  22. From sophomore high school English -- a class and a teacher that I hated -- just some snippets of some awful poem we had to memorize:
    "Under the fell clutch of circumstance, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever God may be for my unconquerable soul". No memory of title nor author. No desire to Google to find out. Just wishing it had never happened and would get out of space in my brain. With that space freed I might be able to remember all of "James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupre" -- a far more worthy poem.

  23. I learned a lot from aunts and great aunts who recited to me.
    Scary thought... When I googled children reciting all I got was reciting the Koran .


  24. Loved this post about poetry today. Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets. Edgar Lee Masters and his Spoon River Anthology is favorite book of poetry. Thanks for a great lift today.

  25. I was never required to memorize poetry as a child, but I do remember having a lot of it around the house: A Child's Garden of Verse; several adult volumes that I can't remember names of, stuff by Poe and Frost, Masters, and even Edgar A. Guest. I guess I was destined for the theatre, too, because I remember reading reams of it aloud to my very patient parents. My husband and I fell in love one giddy night, quoting bits of our favorite poems to each other. I had lots of Shakespeare by that time, while he focused more on 19th century works, but our hearts beat as one when we discovered that we both knew, and could recite in unison, Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee." It was clearly a match made in heaven.