Of Iambs And Meters

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When I heard about The Favorite Poem Project of America's poet laureate, my thoughts wandered back to my parents' kitchen table. And to ninth grade. And 12th grade, for that matter.

All were places I encountered some of my favorite poems - ones like those that laureate Robert Pinsky is currently archiving in an effort to document Americans' poetic tastes (see story, right). I probably remember the moments so clearly because I was one of those students perpetually left speechless by classmates' ability to produce tomes of analysis on a few, to me inscrutable, lines.

Ninth grade gave me a brief respite from that awe. Mr. Brown charged into English class one day, tossed us copies of Shelley's remarkably straightforward "Ozymandias," and demanded an analysis. I was gleeful.

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Grade 12 had its moments, too. I perked up one morning when Wallace Stevens crossed my path. I happily memorized "The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain." That class also unwittingly prodded me to join my family in its rather odd approach to meter and rhyme - something that has produced other poetic favorites, though ones I may not share with Mr. Pinsky.

Come to a special event in my family, and you're soon likely to find yourself speaking in iambic something-or-other - or a close approximation thereof. It started young with my clan: When I left for college, my then six-year-old sister wrote to me that "the cat jumped on the piano and sang alto and soprano." When a college friend and I found our grades slipping slightly under the weight of an excruciatingly boring class, I wrote her an "Ode to Mediocrity." In-laws who became US citizens likewise found themselves feted in silly verse.

I got started in this tradition when called upon to write a sonnet for that 12th-grade class (although I should give a nod to my mother, who used to pay me to memorize poetry). We could get creative with form if we couldn't honor Shakespeare. A high-speed drive down Interstate 84 thus became my inspiration, and my teacher thought it different enough to merit a good grade. My relatives loved it, naturally, because it rattled along in iambic tetrameter.

So our family archive has grown, and it is a pleasure to review. It pulls us back to times gone by, often producing laughs and occasionally a wistful sigh. Of course, we're not about to try for publication. We just like it when others join in - and one-up us in fine style. Last year, when my sister got married, her Cuban-born father-in-law stood up to read a poem in Spanish. Most of us don't know the language - but we didn't bother to read our translation. He had us leaning forward to catch each word. We knew it was pure poetry, and we understood completely.

* Write to: Learning Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA, 02115 or e-mail newcomba@csps.com

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