A word in season
Recent words here about Holman Day, the homespun bard of the State o' Maine, brought a good snatch of letters from folks who, long since, had memorized his verses and repeated them either as entertainment or - gracious sakes! - as speaking contest efforts. One man lamented that he never won a prize, since all speaking contest judges were notoriously agreed that nothing funny could be good. Prizes went to serious ''pieces.'' So he labored in vain with Holman Day, and while the audiences loved the drollery of Day, the judges yawned and gave first prize to . . . .
Well, the Bible of our declamation days was a ''speaker'' edited by Wilmot Brookings Mitchell, Edward Little Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Bowdoin College. ''Mitch'' had selected declamations of cultural and academic stature suitable for his classes, and the doggerel of Day was not included. Day wrote about feeding the stock in the tie-up, about taking lunch buckets to school, and a good many poems we call ''stretchers,'' a stretcher being a tale that elongates the veracities. Mitch preferred things like Spartacus to the Gladiators, and Against Flogging in the United States Navy. Anything from Mitchell's Speaker was a likely winner. Holman Day, no.
This man remembers the stuffed owl, and how it fizzled. Fellow goes into a barbershop and sees a stuffed owl on a shelf and begins to find fault with the taxidermy: I've made the white owl my study for years, And to see such a job almost moves me to tears . . . The refrain was that the barber kept on shaving. And after the fellow had expounded sufficiently: Just then with a wink and a sly, normal lurch, The owl, very gravely, got down from his perch.m
And the barber kept on shaving. The stuffed owl pleased the audience, but the judges gave first prize to a girl with a lisp who repeated a tear-jerker called The Old Violin.m
This man says he had a similar fizzle with the homemade, hard-b'iled egg. Twanging like a farmer, he lamented that so many foods get contaminated and become unsanitary, but the barnyard hen ''wrops'' her product in an impervious container that ensures quality. People laughed, but the judges gave the prize to Murillo's Little Slave.m Those who have communicated on the subject feel the speaking contest and the declamation class were not bad ideas. Professional educators have long since outlawed rote and memorization, so we know better now, and I'm told there is a way to learn Latin without any study at all. But the sad little lad who was never destined to be a platform speaker, let alone an orator, was relieved of the weekly necessity of having a piece ready, and the agony of standing up front to repeat. Even so, I can demonstrate that the agony could be a valuable experience.
A boy in my time named Archer Kierstead was shy and reluctant, and we suffered with him when he was called on. He'd squirm, and so would we. Then one Friday afternoon when called upon he stepped forward, bowed, and began: ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,m by Samuel Taylor Coleridge - How a ship having passed the Line. . . .'' Archer ran off all six hundred and twenty-five verses of that masterful classic without a hitch and sat down in a vast silence. We were permitted, even encouraged, to applaud, but this time we were overwhelmed by Archer's feat, and somewhat fatigued. But that's not all.
Years later, in World War II, Archer was in the Army and aboard a troopship bound for the Pacific theater. Body to body the soldiers were crammed together to the vessel's last capacity, and day after day things churned away in discomfort and monotony. And Archer spoke up and repeated The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Most of the soldiers had never heard of it, and those who had were captivated by Archer's memory. He instantly became a divisional hero, and recited the ballad eight times before disembarkation. So you mustn't fault the declamation class all the way.
My bravest efforts were A Message to Garcia,m by Elbert Hubbard, and A Man Without a Country, m by Edward Everett Hale, both considerable pieces and neither funny. My funny effort was the scene from Innocents Abroad,m by Mark Twain, making fun of the Italian museum guide. ''That joke,'' it goes, ''was lost on the foreigner.'' I realized as I conned and recited that Mark Twain had things askew. Mark Twain in Italy was the foreigner, not the Italian guide, and I learned when in another man's country not to be smart. But the prize went to Thanatopsis.m