The funny thing about posting a poem a day for National Poetry Month? It gets you to thinking about the whole history of poetry in your own life. At first you might think to yourself, “Yeah, I don’t have much to do with that poetry stuff.”
Then it occurs to you that if your parents read you Dr. Seuss when you were a child, that was, in fact, poetry. If you were growing up in my household, this was inevitably followed by Shel Silverstein, and Where the Sidewalk Ends is quite clearly a book of poetry. You know what? Nursery rhymes are poems, too. Many children grow up immersed in poetry. But not a lot of adults read poetry. So what happens in between?
Is it that it stops rhyming? As someone with an alliteration for a name I remember reading once that the sound of a spoken alliteration makes us happy–it touches off some set of synapses in the brain that simply likes that sound. It’s not hard to believe the same is true about rhyming. It delights us. Do we stop liking poetry because we start to believe that grown-up poetry isn’t supposed to rhyme?
Or is it what they do to you in school, making you break a poem down into all its parts. You have to figure out the rhyming scheme. Identify all the metaphors and similes. Talk about the speaker and the tone. Suddenly poetry goes from being something fun and delightful to being a coded message from the enemy which you are being forced to decipher.
At least in my educational experience, no one really explained to me why we were doing this. Why did we need to be able to talk about the rhyming scheme of Robert Frost? As an English major in college, it makes sense to be able to pick apart poetry. But why did we have to do it in junior high and high school? Why not start with poems kids like and then talk about why they like them? Afterwards, provide them with the vocabulary to be more specific about what they like, but make it clear that it’s still, in the end, about liking poetry.
Here ends my diatribe on poetry and education.
In addition to Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, my parents had a volume of favorite poems of childhood. My mother was always joining book clubs (this was before Amazon) and this book was one in a series that also had stories from around the world. The other volumes in this series went largely untouched, but this book was battered and dirty, with torn pages like all well-loved books of childhood should be. It was in this book that I first read William Allingham’s poem, The Faeries. And it freaked…me…out.
Take a look. It’s a scary thing for a small child. I’m not exactly sure who thought it was a good idea for a book of childhood poems. They take Bridget and she dies, for Christ sake! These are not your happy little Tinkerbell fairies, people. These are faeries with an ‘e’ and they are up to no good.
I remember reading this poem over and over again and thinking, “What the heck is a crispy pancake of yellow tide-foam?” I loved the way “Columbkill” and “Slieveleague” sounded. I had no idea what the heck was happening in this poem, but I loved it all the same. I loved it, I think, because it suggested a world. A world that was creepy and mysterious and deeply dangerous. It was the precursor to many stories of magic and fantasy that I’ve read over the years.
The Faeries by William Allingham Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting For fear of little men; Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together; Green jacket, red cap, And white owl’s feather! Down along the rocky shore Some make their home, They live on crispy pancakes Of yellow tide-foam; Some in the reeds Of the black mountain lake, With frogs for their watch-dogs, All night awake. High on the hill-top The old King sits; He is now so old and gray He ’s nigh lost his wits. With a bridge of white mist Columbkill he crosses, On his stately journeys From Slieveleague to Rosses; Or going up with music On cold starry nights To sup with the Queen Of the gay Northern Lights. They stole little Bridget For seven years long; When she came down again Her friends were all gone. They took her lightly back, Between the night and morrow, They thought that she was fast asleep, But she was dead with sorrow. They have kept her ever since Deep within the lake, On a bed of flag-leaves, Watching till she wake. By the craggy hill-side, Through the mosses bare, They have planted thorn-trees For pleasure here and there. If any man so daring As dig them up in spite, He shall find their sharpest thorns In his bed at night. Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting For fear of little men; Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together; Green jacket, red cap, And white owl’s feather!