My brain still hurts, so I have decided to publish a radio commentary I did quite a few years back (for WDIY). If I can locate the mp3 file, I’ll post that, too.
I’ve chosen to post this essay for a number of reasons. The concept of having the time and the motivation to read, recall, and recite poetry seems like heaven to me at the moment. Then there’s the connection to rhythm, to pulse, that operates so fruitfully in metrical poetry. Finally, for sentimental reasons: it’s been ten years since my grandmother’s death, and now my parents have moved into an independent living community, and these events tend to lead to review, reflection, and—in my case—the desire to connect with poetry.
—to the memory of Lucille Bohnstedt
My grandmother was born in 1909. As a child, she lived on a small farm in the Midwest, rising early to do chores, after which she’d study her homework by kerosene lamp. I once asked her what subjects she most enjoyed in school, and her answers surprised me. “I liked doing sums,” she told me, “And Latin, and poetry—I always liked poetry.”
This was a revelation. My grandma always seemed such a practical person; I wondered what it was she liked about Latin and poetry. I was aware of her devotion to crossword puzzles—caught up in the crossword craze during the 1920s, she never gave up her love of solving word challenges. I’m sure her Latin helped her decipher many an obscure word. But puzzles involve a different part of the brain than poetry.
I love poetry, so I had to probe more, curious about what my grandmother had studied and learned in verse. Did she recall which poets she liked? No, she had pretty well forgotten, but she liked rhyme and recitation. She had been good at memorizing lines—she liked the rhythms. And those old poems, they told such good stories, some of them sad…
Recitations! Such an old-fashioned concept, but still very popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Schoolchildren stood at the head of the class reciting their pieces, and poetic ballads were popular recitations at community gatherings and amateur nights; heart-rending tragedies like Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” (1906) were extremely popular. While most of these poems rhymed, their defining feature is the strong rhythm in the lines which carried listeners —who had never experienced the constant blare of television—into the powerful surge of words. Poems such as Wordsworth’s “Lines”:
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs…
Or Sir Henry Wotton’s ecstatic poem “On a Bank as I sat Fishing:”
And now all Nature seemed in love;
The lusty sap began to move;
New juice did stir the embracing vines;
And birds had drawn their Valentines…”
Many a schoolchild recited Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” the fourth line of which has become so famous that few of today’s Americans could tell you its origin—
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The ballads of Edgar Allen Poe—Annabelle Lee was a favorite—and Phoebe Cary’s ballad of the Dutch boy whose finger stemmed a breach in the dike, and Longfellow’s classic poetic stories— “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”—these were my grandmother’s texts, her introduction into poetry. I like to imagine my young grandmother milking cows in the darkness and murmuring “By the shores of Gitchie Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water,/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,/Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis…” the sound of milk in the bucket echoing the rhythm of her hands as she milks. She earned an A in recitation from this practice. Maybe those resounding rhythms played some part in her steady endurance through a long lifetime that was not always easy.
My grandmother died in March of 2001, one less poetry-lover in the world. At her funeral I read Emily Dickinson’s “Farewell.” This is the poem’s last verse—
Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go.
~Here is a photo that shows Grandma’s less-practical side. She’s on the right (with her sister Faye), dressed in “flapper” style and riding side-saddle on a draft horse! I really ought to write a poem about this image.