Three years ago this coming Friday, my best friend died suddenly after suffering a deep thromboembolism. That death, especially the unexpected nature of it, shook me to the core. Of course I had lost friends and loved ones before, but no one with whom I had shared such a bond, with whom I had spent so many hours in quiet, meaningful conversation. No one who knew me so well or who had shared so much with me had ever died before – until now.
After a few days of shock and flurried activity such as writing an obituary, contacting far-flung friends, and generally reeling from the sudden emptiness where there had been presence, I realized that life for the most part must and does go on. My children still needed breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The house needed daily tidying, and I still needed to go to the library to work every day. Outwardly, nothing much seemed to have changed. But over the next days and weeks I noticed a most significant inner change – I could no longer read. Oh, I still knew the alphabet and could fluently turn the symbols on a page into words and sentences and paragraphs, but I took no meaning from those passages. More than that, nothing held my interest, nothing seemed to stick.
For a librarian, this was a dire situation! I wondered if I would find pleasure in losing myself in a book ever again. And then, one day as I glanced at an open book of poetry someone had returned, I read a short sentence that spoke to me in a clear and beautiful image. I felt the first quiet stirrings of inner awareness again. The numb part was slowly waking up, and poetry was the key.
It’s easy, in these days of prose and dystopia and adventure, to forget that in addition to Twilight and The Hunger Games and whatever the next big mania will be, there is the quiet, or harsh, or musical voice of verse. This is a voice children need to hear. It can be beautiful, or funny (even absurd), or compassionate, or soothing – as well as much, much more.
When my oldest child was born, I remember sitting on the couch holding him as he ate, and reading Robert Frost out loud to his tiny three-week-old self. I figured he would hear the rhythms of my voice long before any words would register. Then I remember coming across the poem by Walt Whitman “There Was a Child Went Forth” that begins:
There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of
the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
I would sometimes think very carefully before choosing a symbolic toy to put into little Ben’s crib each day.
Poetry is important for children. It is distilled thought. It is symbolic thought. By exposing our children to poetry, we can prepare them to observe the world around them in many ways.
Last Friday, one of my librarians called to me from the nonfiction section to let me know that once again all five copies of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends had gone missing. It’s time to reorder them in quantity . . . again. Of course I wish those books wouldn’t walk off so frequently (security system or not), but it also tells me there is a thirst for poetry, a hunger to read and reread those enchanting words that still persists in spite of all the seeming aversion to verse and symbolism in this modern, busy life.
So where do we find our greatest exposure to poetry? I thought about this for quite awhile before I realized that one medium through which we and our children participate in reading perhaps five and often many more poems every week is in the poetical lyrics of hymns and songs. Music, whether it is pop or rock or folk or some other type of vocal song, is built on a structure of poetry. Elvis, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and so many other musical artists were poets as well as pop stars. And composers like Bach and Beethoven used poetry as the foundation of some of their finest work.
Yes, we are surrounded by poetry. Just as singing with little children helps reinforce their phonological awareness, or their ability to recognize the small sounds and syllables that make up words and speech, exposing our children to poetry helps develop both their ear for language and their inner awareness of imagery and beauty and meaning in life.
In E.M. Forster’s short story “The Celestial Omnibus,” a young boy is set to learn some poetry as a punishment for running off without telling anyone where he was going. He said his poem and then burst into tears.
“Come, come! Why do you cry?” [Mr. Bons asked.]
“Because – because all these words that only rhymed before, now that I’ve come back, they’re me.”
Our own lives, and our children’s lives, can become poetic if we use the tools of insight and observation and contemplation poetry provides. Then, if we are ever confronted with Shel Silverstein’s “sharp-toothed snail,” or a jabberwock, or a particulaly beautiful sunset, or a grief that seems too heavy to bear, we will have a context from which to recognize the situation, and think about it, and adapt to it.
Yesterday as I was thinking about the three-year anniversary of my own private loss, I picked up another volume of poetry and found a verse that spoke to me of growth and gratitude and recognition of lessons hard-learned. Mary Oliver, in “The Return” wrote:
The gate I want to open now is the one that leads into
the flower-bed of my mind, thank you, yes.
Every day the slow, fresh wind, thank you, yes.
The wing, in the dark, that touches me.
In these lines I catch a glimpse I can understand, of meaning and truth. That is the kind of recognition I hope my children, and all children, will find as they read and recite and sing. That is the power of poetry.