Cover of "The Jabberwocky"

Cover of The Jabberwocky

The wonderful poetry library in Lower Manhattan, Poets House, asked:

What were your favorite poems as a child and how do you inspire a love of poetry in your own children?

Easy.  My favorite poems as a child were “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll.

Of course, I also enjoyed Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses, but these two poems left the biggest impression.

In fact, the former served as a model for the first long poem I ever wrote, which thankfully doesn’t survive.  It was a rambling “epic” about my great grandfather, Nathan Lewis Burgess, a whaler who sailed out of New Bedford in the late 19th Century.

The latter was just chosen by my oldest son, Jasper, for an audition at the school play this year.  Hearing him recite “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:/ All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe,” the other night was music to my ears.

I have always tried to cultivate a love of poetry in my children.  First, with the aforementioned eldest, who once accompanied me to a reading I hosted for Ducky Magazine, which I founded with two friends.  I think Jasper must have been nine. When one of the poets on the bill was delayed by traffic, I had my son read her poems to the audience.

And we often read poems from Stevenson’s Garden, as well as The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, Mother Goose, and individual poems on special occasions around the dinner table.

My children all know their father is a poet, and I always encourage them to write their own poems.  (I still have Jasper’s collection of poems, which he prepared in a little booklet for sixth grade.)

And last May, I took my younger son, Walker, to Poets House to meet and hear one of my poetry teachers, Robert Hass.  As I wrote about earlier on this blog, Walker brought a poem to share, which Bob read aloud during the morning children’s program.

And recently, my daughter Elizabeth told her teacher that her father was a poet and volunteered me to come in to share some poetry with her class.

The keys to sharing poetry with children?  Keep it simple, make sure it rhymes, don’t try to analyze the  poems (unless they do), and show them how much you love poetry.  They will get it.

A love of poetry is a wonderful legacy to pass on.

 

 

 

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Gladys Taylor (on right), with her companion Ga Morrill, in Brookfield, Vermont

Back in November 2002 I was a poet-in-residence at the Millay Colony in upstate New York.    I went up there with the kernels of a big, ambitious new project in mind — my poetic sequence called “Dwelling.”

One day, November 17th to be exact, I took a break from writing and went for a hike in the woods.  In the middle of the woods I had a kind of vision of my childhood.

I was in the woods with Gladys Taylor, who we called Aunt Gladys and who looked after me those days.  Really, I was her protegé.  (I have two slim books of stories she wrote about my exploits as a toddler.)

Suddenly, as rarely happens, I had one of those bolts of inspiration and was compelled to run back to my studio. I sat down at the desk, grabbed my notebook, and wrote furiously.  Some 250 lines later, I put down my pencil and went to the communal dining hall.  When I got back after dinner and read what I had written, I thought some of it was pretty good.

The best of it was the story of Gladys’s “education” of me — I always say that everything I learned, I learned from Gladys Taylor.

Wanting to acknowledge Gladys in a dedication, I looked up her birth date on the Social Security Death Index (she died in 1986).  It turned out, I was writing the poem on what would have been her 100th birthday!  (This past Wednesday would have been her 108th.)

As a dear friend of mine said to me once, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining mysterious.”

Here is my poem, which was a runner-up for the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award a few years ago:

The Postlude

“What dwelling shall receive me?…The earth is all before me.”
–Wordsworth, “The Prelude”

I am a child, crawling around in the leaves

With Gladys Taylor while she names the trees,

parts the grasses, digs into the earth with a gardener’s trowel.

She picks out worms and slugs, millipedes

And springtails, which we see with a “Berlese funnel.”

Busy decomposers working their busy tasks,

Turning waste into energy, leaf litter into soil again.

Gladys names things for me: “That oak,

That maple there, that sassafras, smell its roots.”

“Root beer!” I exclaim,

Her laughter peeling away into the hills. Later,

With Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study

On the table next to the unending jigsaw puzzle,

Gladys opens to “The Oaks,” reading or reciting:

“The symbol of strength since man first gazed

Upon its noble proportions…” Then she sings Virgil,

 

Full in the midst of his own strength he stands

            Stretching his brawny arms and leafy hands,

            His shade protects the plains, his head the hills commands.

 

Leaves and acorns spread across the table,

Each divided to its source, as if cataloguing specimens:

The white and chestnut oaks, red and scarlet,

Every oak in the neighborhood, sketching the leaves,

Tracing and coloring them. Then questions, such questions:

“Where did we see this one growing?” “How tall?”

“Are the branches crooked or straight?”

“Round leaves or pointy?”

And then a game of matching

Acorn to leaf; a most difficult lesson — as difficult

As those jigsaw puzzles for a boy lacking patience

Or attention. Outdoors again, to learn attention,

Naming the birds that came to eat at the feeder:

Chickadee, sparrow, nuthatch, tufted titmouse,

The ubiquitous jay.

“The mockingbird, hear

How he makes fun of all the other birds.” Now

Thrasher, now robin, the sweet sweet sweet,

Very merry cheer of the song sparrow,

Or the flicker’s whicka whicka wick-a-wick.

Then a jay’s piercing caw, a cat’s meow,

This was all the mocker’s doing!  And wide-eyed,

I stare, as Gladys seems to call birds to her side.

“The robin tells us when it’s going to rain,

Not just when spring is come,” she says. “Look

How he sings as he waits for worms to surface.”

That summer, rowing around the pond

By Brookfield’s floating bridge, I saw a beaver

Slap the water with its tail, and then swim around the boat,

As if in warning. Under water a moment later he went,

Only to appear twenty yards away, scrambling up the bank,

Back to his busy work. “Busy as a beaver,” Gladys laughs.

Then a serious tone, “You know that beavers gathered

The mud with which the earth was made?”

(I later learned this was Indian legend; to her

There was little difference among the ways of knowing.)

All around the pond the beavers made of the creek,

The sharp points of their handiwork: birches broken

For succulent shoots, twigs, leaves and bark bared.

“When they hear running water, they’ve just got

To get back to work!” Beavers moving across

The water, noses up, branches in their teeth,

Building or repairing dams or adding to their lodges,

Lodges that look like huts Indians might have used.

 

I watched for them — beavers and Indians — when

Out on the water, and once I remember a beaver

Jumping clear out of the water over the bow of the rowboat!

Later, wading in the mud shallows by the pond’s pebbly edge,

I came out of the water to find leeches covering my feet,

Filling the spaces between my toes.  Screaming, fascinated,

I learned that they sucked blood, little bloodsuckers,

A kind of worm, which were once used to reduce fever.

 

That was me to Gladys Taylor’s teaching,

Wanting to soak up everything she had to give me.

We picked pea pods out of the garden, shelled

On the spot, our thumbs a sort prying-spoon,

And ate blackberries by the bushel or bellyful,

Probably blueberries, too, I don’t know. And

Seeing the milkweed grown fat with its milk,

I popped it open, squirting the white viscous

Juice at my brother. Gladys always found

A caterpillar on the milkweed leaves, tiger stripes

Of black, white, and yellow. “Monarchs,” she said,

“The most beautiful butterfly you’ll ever see.”

I looked incredulously at the caterpillar, believing,

Because she was Gladys, but not believing her,

That this wiggly, worm-like thing could be a butterfly.

Later, she found a chrysalis and took the leaf

And twig from which it hung. She placed it atop

A jar on the picnic table, and each day we waited

— waited for what? I didn’t know. Until one day,

It was empty, a hollow, blue-green emerald shell,

And I almost cried. “Look, out in the meadow,”

She instructed. Hundreds, it seemed like

Thousands, of monarch butterflies flitting about,

From flower to flower!

The wooly-bear

Was easier to study. We put it in a jar with a twig

And fresh grass every day; it curled and slept and ate

Until one day it climbed, climbed to the top

Of the twig and spun a cocoon from its own hairs.

There it stayed for weeks, until at last I thought it dead.

But then, emerging from its silky capsule, a hideous sight:

Gray, tawny, dull–a tiger moth! Nothing like the cute

And fuzzy reddish-brown and black teddy bear we’d found.

“This is magic,” said Gladys. “Nature’s magic.”

 

And I believed her, believe her still, that there is some magic

In nature speaking within us when we are in it, of it, let it in–

Science may explain this all away, physics or biology,

But nothing will shake my faith in this:

That the force of nature, the inner fire, anima mundi,

Gaia, or whatever you may call it, is alive within each

Being and everything with which we share this earth.

 

My Mother Earth was Gladys Taylor, and she

Taught me these things, and about poetry and art,

In the few, brief years we had together. Gladys

Taught me how to look at the world — to pay attention.

Thus began my education from Nature’s bosom:

A woman, childless herself (I believe) who,

In her dungarees and work-shirt, took a child

Under her wing and gave him gold,

Gave him his desire for dwelling on this earth.

 

(For Gladys Taylor, 17 November 1902-1 January 1986)

–Scott Edward Anderson


Rimbaud Carjat

Arthur Rimbaud

Poet William Stafford was a quiet and gentle force in poetry. He liked it that way; at least that’s what he told The Paris Review in 1989.  (I think it was published in 1993, the year he died.)

As William Young, the interviewer, wrote in his introduction,

The intimacy of William Stafford’s poetry would seem to belie the enormous popularity the poet’s work has enjoyed, but in fact it is a product of Stafford’s keen ability to discern poetic language in everyday speech and appropriate it for his own work.

Stafford, whose first volume of poetry was not published until 1960 when he was forty-six, was born in the small town of Hutchinson, Kansas, on January 17, 1914 and died in Portland, Oregon, on August 28, 1993 at the age of seventy-nine.

He came to my high school when I was a freshman and read poetry to us.  I had been reading the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, in the Louise Varese translation published by New Directions, and was all hopped up about the poet as visionary and seer, about the power of poetic vision on the soul.

So, when it came to the Q&A, I raised my hand and asked, “Mr. Stafford, do you agree with Rimbaud that the the poet must be a visionary?”

It was a brilliant question.  I stood there while the entire audience turned around to admire my brilliance.

Then I saw their faces.  One classmate in particular, one of the drama students, looked at me incredulously and mouthed something that appeared to be “Rim-bod?!”

Then I realized what I had done.  Despite being in my fourth year of French lessons, I had badly butchered Rimbaud’s name, and rather than sounding like “Rambo,” I had made it sound like “Rim-bod.”

My face went red.  I sank down into my seat.  Humiliated.

Stafford, for his part, very calmly looked at me and answered, “No. I think the poet needs to be able to see the world he or she lives in, but not necessarily be visionary. Paying attention goes a lot longer than vision.”

You can read many of William Stafford’s poems at Selected William Stafford Poetry.

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