Poetry is a gift; pass it on

"So what made you decide to be an English teacher?" asked Nicole, a young teacher who had recently joined the department. She had come in to help me pack up books, plants, posters, and mugs – all soon-to-be reminders of my 22 years in this classroom.

I hadn't thought about my reasons for teaching before. In my generation, most women became teachers or nurses. I loved reading, always. A short walk to the local library yielded six books on each visit, the maximum allowed, and within those covers unfolded the far-flung adventures, mysteries, and hints of romance that fed my childlike hunger for excitement.

But Nicole's question evoked another explanation: Throughout my childhood, my father read poetry to me at bedtime. I envision myself, a small child almost ready to fall asleep. My father sat on the edge of the bed with a timeworn, slim volume of poems open on his lap. He read only one or two of his favorites before he turned out the light, but I looked forward to them.

I could hear his mellow, expressive voice as he enunciated each word, his head bent over the page. Each poem, in its own way, resonated with me, whether I fully understood it or not. The editors of anthologies from which I later taught did not think highly of many of these poems: The rhythms were contrived, the language too simplistic, and the themes too obvious.

Yet the poems my father loved were the ones that first taught me about life and beauty, about growing up and accepting change. John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy" was his favorite. It begins, "Blessings on thee, little man/ Barefoot boy with cheek of tan!"

The youngest of six children in a Russian immigrant family, my father was city-raised and grew up playing in the street or in a vacant lot. I imagine the natural world of the barefoot boy – replete with woodchucks, wood grapes, and waterfowl – had a special allure.

When he read me his other Whittier favorite, "Maud Muller," I pitied the judge in the poem, who hadn't married Maud, the beautiful, poor farm girl he loved, but chose instead a wealthy city lady who lacked Maud's simple, gracious ways. The poem provided an early lesson in learning to live with the choices one makes.

I cried for the toy soldiers that rusted in the corner, waiting for Eugene Field's "Little Boy Blue" to return.

I wanted to be elegant like the beautiful, aristocratic lady in Amy Lowell's "Patterns." As she paced the patterned walkways in her stiff, brocaded gown, she manifested a poise to which I aspired. I marveled at how well she camouflaged her fears as she awaited word from her fiancé, who had gone to war.

"Laugh and the world laughs with you;/ Weep and you weep alone." In my childhood, Ella Wilcox's often-quoted words from "Solitude" had not yet acquired the patina of overuse. To me, they were fresh and provocative. Although my father offered no commentary on the poem's themes, I soon understood that smiles attracted more friends than did frowns.

Eventually, I taught poetry and wanted to help my students hear the music of the language and select images they particularly liked. I knew that deeper understanding would come later, when life experiences evoked those words and images once again, this time with fresh meanings.

In the week prior to my packing up the keepsakes from my classroom, I scanned the many bookshelves lined up against three walls. Chipped, peeling, and usually dusty, they held old and new copies of novels, plays, and, especially, volumes of poetry. Most of the poetry books were musty, accumulated when other teachers had cleaned out their rooms over the years.

Iknew I'd have no room at home for these books. Our home library was overflowing. But I couldn't just get rid of them. Thus, my parting gift to my students seemed appropriate. "Go through the books and take one you'd really like to have," I told them.

The poetry volumes went first: 17th-century love poetry, collections of sonnets by Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the joyful tributes to love and springtime in collections by E.E. Cummings. Watching my students pore over the books, trying to choose only one, was their final gift to me.

I have since come to understand something about teaching and learning. Sometimes the learning that stays with us the longest is not what we learned in the classroom. It often comes in the back door, with no intent to instruct. My father loved the words, rhythms, and meanings of the poems he read, although he never mentioned any of those things. He simply read, slowly and quietly, with heartfelt intonations.

Now, in his 90s, he is still reading and reciting poetry. These days it's "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" and stanzas from Wordsworth's "Intimations on Immortality." "It's how I keep my mind active," he says. "I make myself memorize my favorite verses."

I watch him moving slowly through the house where I was raised, his feet in soft slippers. He recites lines from Wordsworth as he walks. The voice is the same – expressive as always. I realize now that the gift of love for poetry, which he had given me as a child, I, in turn, tried to give others.

From 'The Barefoot Boy'

By John Greenleaf Whittier
Published in 'The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier' in 1894.

Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim's jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy –
I was once a barefoot boy!
Prince thou art – the grown-up man
Only is republican.
Let the million-dollared ride!
Barefoot, trudging at his side,
Thou hast more than he can buy
In the reach of ear and eye –
Outward sunshine, inward joy:
Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!...

From 'Solitude'

By Ella Wheeler Wilcox
published in 'Poems of Passion' 1883

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all....

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