A Poetic Odyssey Launched by the Spearman
AT the celebration of her 90th birthday, my mother recited a very long poem. Several guests wanted to know if she had memorized it for the occasion. ``Oh, no,'' she replied, ``I learned it for a school closing picnic a very long time ago. We memorized a lot of poems in those days.'' My daughter and son were amazed by their grandmother's performance. Memorizing poetry had hardly been a part of their education. The same was true for their own children. However, my experience of learning poems by heart was similar to Mother's.
In 1915, Wrigley's Mother Goose book was my first introduction to poetry. This quaint book of nursery poems, spoken by the smiling Spearman, came free with a stick of spearmint from the gum company in Chicago. Memorizing the jingles helped to prepare me for grade school, where English and reading courses required a great deal of memory work.
A series of English texts called ``Our Language'' contained not only lessons in grammar but also verses from the great poets for memorizing. From Shakespeare, for example, we learned lines that had no meaning out of context. You rose from the recitation bench to deliver such quotations as, ``The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact,'' and ``I have no other but a woman's reason/ I think him so because I think him so.''
In our readers, Longfellow's ``The Village Blacksmith'' was easy enough for the fourth grader, but Bryant's ``Thanatopsis,'' 80 lines of blank verse, challenged the eighth grader. We sustained a forceful iambic pentameter in the ta-da meter and closed each line with a powerful end-stopped da!
Memorizing poetry also had a definite place in the high school curriculum. In 1926, our school sought affiliation with the state department of education. Success in achieving and retaining accreditation meant following rules imposed by the agency. Students were required to memorize a specific number of lines of poetry in all English courses.
Fortunately, I had a fine teacher of junior English. His reading to our class Whitman's ``Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking'' inspired in me an interest I had not previously known. Like Keats, I had traveled in ``the realms of gold.''
One of our textbooks further contributed to appreciation for poetry, ``Selections from American Literature,'' with the subtitle ``Later American Writers.'' My worn copy is a storeroom of schoolday memories. Its editor says in his note, ``Voices of the New America,'' that for the first time in our history ``most of our poets are beginning to reflect the real American spirit.'' According to the editor, we lived in ``the blossoming time of the new poetry,'' which included imagists and experimenters.
Amy Lowell, John Gould Fletcher, and Hilda Doolittle were classified as imagists, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams as experimenters. The imagists, who caused a furor among poets and critics in 1916, aimed to bring poetry back to the ordinary speech of everyday life. Hard, clear images would deal with realities. Amy Lowell's two-line poem ``Peace'' illustrated a striking image:
Perched upon the muzzle
of a cannon A yellow butterfly is slowly
opening and closing its wings.
Poems by Carl Sandburg, Hilda Doolittle, and Robert Frost were a far cry from the traditional poets of grade school. Knowing farm life on a Texas prairie, I found a welcome in Robert Frost's ``The Pasture.'' The poet goes out to clean the spring and bring in a new calf. ``I sha'n't be gone long. You come too.'' When Frost sees branches bending down in ``Birches,'' he likes to think ``some boy's been swinging them.'' This joyous activity I knew in real life though my trees were elms. I memorized the last part of the poem beginning with ``Earth's the right place for love'' and ending on ``One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.'' Looking back dozens of years, I think I could have done worse in choosing these selections for memory work.
Had our class voted on the most popular poem, it would have been ``The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver'' by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her romantic imagination appealed to the young people of my generation. Hailed as one of the chief poets of America, she won the Pulitzer prize for the best volume of poetry in 1921.
I memorized the first 18 lines of Chaucer's ``Prologue'' to ``The Canterbury Tales,'' demanded by the state department of education for senior English. I remember futile attempts to handle middle English. My first error in recitation came early. I pronounced Chaucer's ``Aprille'' in three syllables, accent on the second syllable.
After I became a university student, I was freed from memorizing poetry. But a highlight in higher education was hearing several contemporary poets read their works. Hearing Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1928 was a culmination of experience beginning with the happy Spearman who sang me on the way.