January 13, 2009

Poems and Me

When I was in grade 11 I took an Enriched English class. The teacher asked us to bring in our favourite poem. Poems have never really been my thing and my taste was, and still is, sadly pedestrian.

I considered bringing this one by Alfred Lord Tennyson to class - it's a small section from the much longer In Memorium (which is basically book length):

I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.

But who shall so forecast the years
And find in loss a gain to match?
Or reach a hand thro’ time to catch
The far-off interest of tears?

Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d,
Let darkness keep her raven gloss:
Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss,
To dance with death, to beat the ground,

Than that the victor Hours should scorn
The long result of love, and boast,
‘Behold the man that loved and lost,
But all he was is overworn.’
I still like it. I like the rhythm of the words. Tennyson, for me, is all about the rhythm of the words. But In Memorium is just so sad. But hopeful, too. You know? (See my in depth analysis? I'm so cerebral.) I also like Tennyson's narrative poems, like The Lady of Shallot. Loreena McKennitt sang a song using most of this poem (she left out a few stanzas) as lyrics. It's pretty. want to hear it? Here it is live:

And I like some of his other stuff, too. Like The Charge of the Light Brigade ("Canon to right of them; Canon to the left of them; Canon in front of them volley'd and thunder'd"), as horrible as this story is (the Light Brigade was mistakenly ordered to charge in where they had no chance of winning and were all killed) it has a good beat and you can dance to it; it's all in the rhythm of the words.


Back to grade 11 Enriched English. Instead of In Memorium, I chose to bring a children's poem by Robert Louis Stephenson - The Land of Counterpane. This is still one of my favourite poems.
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Nothing complex here. Just a kid playing make-believe with his toys among the hills and valleys formed by his bedspread. And it rhymes.

As you can imagine I lost the respect of my teacher that day. At the end of the year she suggested to me that I wasn't cut out for Enriched English. I guess she expected enriched students to prefer the more complicated poems like, for instance: Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (a poem which makes no sense and shifts focus halfway through as if the author forgot which poem he was working on and put the wrong ending on this one) or maybe something by Percy Bysshe Shelly (who, I've read, spent most of his life stoned out of his head) like The Moon (which basically compares the moon to an insane, dying woman). It seems ridiculous to me that the teacher would ask people to share their favourite poem and then judge their intelligence and ability based on their choice. Stupid old cow. On the other hand, I should have known better and brought in something I knew would impress her.


My taste in poetry is still unsophisticated - I like it straight forward and (usually) short. I like it to rollick along with a jaunty rhythm, I like to be able to feel the words on my tongue as they pass through my mouth and I consider it a nice bonus if a poem manages to create a vivid picture in my mind.

Here are some other poems I've enjoyed:

I like the cute little Christopher Robin poems by A.A. Milne. Especially this one, Halfway Down the Stairs:
Halfway down the stairs is a stair where I sit.
There isn't any other stair quite like it.
I'm not at the bottom, I'm not at the top.
So this is the stair where I always stop.

Halfway up the stairs isn't up and isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery, it isn't in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head.
It isn't really anywhere, it's somewhere else instead.

Halfway down the stairs is a stair where I sit.
There isn't any other stair quite like it.
I'm not at the bottom, I'm not at the top.
So this is the stair where I always stop.
And Milne's poem Growing Up, especially the line "I know wonderful paddly places".

I also like Emily Dickinson. Check this out:
An awful tempest mashed the air,
The clouds were gaunt and few;
A black, as of a spectre’s cloak,
Hid heaven and earth from view.

The creatures chuckled on the roofs
And whistled in the air,
And shook their fists and gnashed their teeth,
And swung their frenzied hair.

The morning lit, the birds arose;
The monster’s faded eyes
Turned slowly to his native coast,
And peace was Paradise!
"The creatures chuckled on the roofs and whistled in the air" Great stuff, that! Creates a vivid mental image, no? (And I sometimes have frenzied hair when I get out of bed in the morning. I can relate to that. Can't you?)

And this (also by Dickinson):
Are friends delight or pain?
Could bounty but remain
Riches were good.

But if they only stay
Bolder to fly away,
Riches are sad.
So, so true. Her poems are nice and short but manage to get the point across with a certain amount of style and awesomeness, don't you think?.

And here are a few favourite poems of mine, which I discovered when I was a wee girly student type person:

Mending Wall by Robert Frost, which ends with Frost's neighbour telling him, "Good fences make good neighbors." Oh snap!

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas, in which he tells his father (who is on his death bed): "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

My Last Duchess by Robert Browning is another narrative poem. It's really a speech by a Duke describing, in a conversational tone, a portrait of his last wife, who he had killed when he became jealous because, "She had A heart . . . how shall I say? . . . too soon made glad, Too easily impressed, she liked whate'er She looked on, and her looks went everywhere."

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Another narrative poem. The ancient mariner nabs a party goer and forces him to listen to his tale of woe and warning about killing the albatross (a symbol of good luck) and bringing bad fortune down on his sailing ship. Spooky stuff. This poem brought us the lines, "Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink ; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink."

The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. A creepy poem about a guy who mistakes a raven for his lost love only to have the raven look him coldly in the eye and tell him, "Nevermore." Ouch.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth. A nice little ditty in which a lonely poet takes comfort in the beauty of a field of dancing daffodils.

The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams (what were his parents thinking when they named him William Williams?) is a wonderful little word picture piece:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

And, of course, a poem I found in one of the books my parents had around the house - It was by an anonymous author. It went (if memory serves):
One night in late October
When I was far from sober
I started t'ward my home with manly pride.

My feet began to stutter
so I lay down in the gutter
and a pig came by and lay down at my side.

A woman passing by was heard to say,
"You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses."
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

What type of poetry do you enjoy? What are your favourite poems? Any stories about old cow English teachers you'd like to share?


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