Dad Tries Not to Steal the Stanzas
I could hardly believe it. A flier for a poetry recital. In this day and age. And it came out of my son's school backpack.
Should I have been so surprised at this? After all, poetry is good stuff. I have made it a policy that every other book I read should be a book of poems. And yet, I feel vaguely alone in this predilection for verse. With technical and scientific studies having appropriated grammar-school and high school curricula, not to mention those of colleges and universities, the humanities - especially the ur-humanity of poetry - seem to have been put up attic, spoken of in whispers, like a discredited relative.
Ah, poetry, where has it gone? I can still remember Miss Cheriko of third-grade fame swiping her broad arm like a maestro, conducting all 40 of us nine-year-olds through the steady, rhymed cadences of such traditional gems as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," "The Road Not Taken," and "The Tiger."
Like most of my classmates, I was willing to repeat the verses so long as I was sitting in ranks, chirping along with the rest. But I recall the sweat pooling in my palms when Miss Cheriko scanned the room for someone to stand up front and recite solo.
I was afraid that she had somehow discovered - through the clandestine methods available to third-grade teachers - that I knew the first stanza of "Sea-Fever," by John Masefield. I loved that poem, with its resignations in shades of gray to yield to the pull of the ocean life. But I didn't love it enough to stand before the class and recite it.
My heart took flight when Miss Cheriko's gaze passed over me and settled on Kevin Butler, who, to my amazement, marched right up to the front of the room and belted out "The Village Blacksmith" with the heart and fervor of a preacher.
It has long been my theory that in America, interest in poetry declined in tandem with the rise of television. After all, school had once been the only show in town, with poetry one of its main acts. But the glitz and glare and incessant blare of the tube managed to make poetry seem old-fashioned. Print on the page was out, the vacuum tube was in.
The poem assigned to my son, Alyosha, was "In Flanders Fields." When I heard this I could barely contain myself. I immediately began to recite, "In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row...."
"Dad," my son interrupted with a sad shake of his head. "It's my poem."
As I watched my son retire to his room, poem in hand, I felt driven to call my own father to tell him the news. No sooner had I mentioned "In Flanders Fields," than he began, "In Flanders fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row...."
Yes, he had learned it, too. Back in the '30s. And it somehow stuck, erupting once more to the surface, in memory yet green, after all these years.
A week later I found myself en route to the recital with my son. My sense of anticipation was strong: This was the highlight of my week. As we drove along, I stole a moment to look down at Alyosha, who was quietly mouthing the words to his poem. I listened intently, and when he made some small error, I tried to correct him, but he held up a hand. Yes, yes; this was his poem, and my job was to drive and keep my mouth shut.
The atmosphere in his classroom was electric that evening. The room was packed with sixth-graders, their parents, and mostly younger siblings. My son's teacher, Mr. Glueck, bid us welcome and told us the program would last about 30 minutes - for 19 students! Well, so it was a fast-food version of poetry, but as John Masefield would no doubt have said, any port in a storm.
One after another, the children came front and center. What an eclectic bunch: Some were cleaned and pressed to perfection, others wore jeans and baggy shirts; some were in costume, like the little girl who recited Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc," and others brought props, like the girl who recited "All Things Bright and Beautiful" with pet rabbit in arm.
Some students recited their pieces without batting an eye. Others were dumbstruck and warranted rescuing by Mr. Glueck. One little girl made an exaggerated series of sounds unrelated to her poem, and I couldn't discern whether she was laughing hysterically, sobbing bitterly, or if poetry, like everything else, had simply progressed.
ALYOSHA, in white shirt and black vest, managed "In Flanders Fields" with only one brief lapse of memory. My concern was that he would become flustered if he noticed me mouthing the words. But he successfully ran through his three stanzas, then sought the snug harbor of his folding chair.
After 18 students had done their poems, Mr. Glueck announced that the last student, unfortunately, could not make it. I ran my eyes down the program and my heart sank. That student was supposed to recite "Sea- Fever." Still one of my favorites.
As the gathering broke up and headed for refreshments, I did what I did because the feeling was so strong within me. Seizing Mr. Glueck by the arm, I leaned into his ear and recited:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face and a gray dawn breaking.
I would have recited it in front of the class, but Alyosha was right: "In Flanders Fields" was his poem, and this was his night.