Dip into a poem, please

SHE loved solitary rambles. Often she would awake before dawn and climb, alone and in the dark, up a little mountain outside Camden, Maine, to see the sun come up over Penobscot Bay. The view today from the top of Mt. Battiie is much as it was 75 years ago when the teen-ager, whom her family called ``Vincent,'' would scramble up there. Mercifully, now there is a good road, and there is also a plaque at the peak, bearing the opening lines of the poem that Edna St. Vincent Millay began writing there, ``Renascence'': All I could see from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked another way, And saw three islands in a bay. So with my eyes I traced the line Of the horizon, thin and fine, Straight around till I was come Back to where I'd started from; And all I saw from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood.

This deceptively simple and joyous poem launched the career of one of the leading literary figures of the 1920s. But even at 20 herself, she had previously published poems, having been a regular contributor to St. Nicholas Magazine and the editor in chief of the Camden High School magazine.

And yet, when she was a senior, the boys in her class voted against her as Class Poet, naming a boy instead. Vincent ever after resented this and other evidences of male chauvinism.

One wonders whatever became of the fellow who was elected as Class Poet in preference to Edna St. Vincent Millay. One wonders, too, if graduating seniors pick a Class Poet anymore. In fact, do they read much poetry, let alone write it?

Poetry used to be such a delightful part of even elementary school curricula. At a recent poetry session of my book club, the grandmotherly members reminisced about poems they had memorized in elementary school days, and each could recite verse after verse of old favorites. ``It is an ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three ...'' vividly brings back a lengthy fourth grade poetry and art project to me.

Jim Wright, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, recalls once being paid a dollar by his father to recite Kipling's ``If'' at the dinner table. I would guess Mr. Wright could still reel off that poem. That sort of recitation probably contributed to his present effusive oratory, which has been described as having a rare sense of drama.

I grew up on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poems. When I was 6, I was in the hospital with a leg in traction for several months. Each evening after work my dad would come and read aloud to me. I loved hearing ``The Song of Hiawatha'' over and over again. Would a six-year-old nowadays know what ``Gitche Gumee'' means?

Over the past three or four years I've served on teams observing activities in our large city school system. Judging the curriculum is outside our purview, but one can't help being aware of what is being taught, as one sits in classroom after classroom, listening to the lessons and looking at worksheets and other materials posted on bulletin boards.

So I asked a teacher of a ``gifted'' fourth/fifth grade if that group, at least, didn't dip into some poetry. Ruefully she confessed that she would love to do it, but there simply wasn't time. One rationalization might be that poetry contributes little to career preparation. Another could be that youngsters are getting poetry in the form of lyrics in the popular music they love so much.

It seems a shame to me. Poetry, however simple, even however corny, can become such a part of the fabric of our lives. I'll never forget my first early winter evenings in Glasgow, right after World War II, when, reversing the flow of ``war brides,'' we had gone to live there. Looking out of my Kelvinside hotel window, I would see the lamplighter come along, set up his ladder at each lamp, and climb up to light the lamps. Up from the depths of childhood memories, of reading aloud by crackling fires, came Robert Louis Stevenson's lines: My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky; It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by; For every night at tea-time and before you take your seat, With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Do children memorize, even read, Stevenson anymore? Or, in an age when sensor controls automatically turn on streetlamps, and in today's hustle and technology and bureaucracy and television, has poetry dropped through the cracks for most children? A childhood without ``A Child's Garden of Verses'' and A.A. Milne and Hiawatha is missing something very special. How else will we encourage the next Edna St. Vincent Millay?

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