When I was a little girl, we had a nighttime ritual: after teeth were brushed and pyjamas donned, my brothers and I would pile into my parents’ bed and listen as they read us poetry. Not children’s poetry like Alligator Pie or A Child’s Garden of Verses, but classic poems: Byron’s Destruction of Senaccherib, Rudyard Kipling’s If, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon (okay, that one was probably for children.) The poems all came from a book called The Golden Treasury of Poetry, which is now out of print, and which my brothers and I have all (at some point) tried to take home with us. None of us succeeded. Mum guards her poetry book zealously, by which I mean that it’s up there in the top three Things Nobody Else but Mum is Allowed to Touch EVER! along with her sewing scissors and her stapler.
Fast forward to last year. At the school book sale there was a representative from a smallish publishing company, selling beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully curated anthologies of stories, legends, and poems. I took one look at the Barefoot Book of Classic Poems and knew that I had to have it. Boy, were the children disappointed when they learned that the book was mine – and that it was, in fact, The Book Nobody Else but Eema (mum) is Allowed to Touch EVER!
I love reading poetry. It’s the rhymes, the rhythm, the economy of words, and the breadth of language that excite me. I read The Highwayman for the first time a few months ago and was clutching the book, knuckles white, until the girl sacrificed herself for her love. Something told the Wild Geese evokes in me that strange hollow feeling that comes at the end of summer when you just know that winter is on its way. I just love poetry.
Do other people love poems as much as I do? Do any of you expose your children to good, classic poetry? I took it for granted that poetry would be part of a family’s reading repertoire, but then I read a comment thread on some forum in which parents had been asked for good things to read a kindergartener, and people mentioned all manner of serialized, licensed books that use the exact same vocabulary as we do in our day-to-day lives. For heaven’s sake, people, where’s the magic? How will our children’s minds and vocabularies and imaginations stretch if we keep limiting them to the same basic stories in the same basic words?
Despite my childhood exposure, my children came to poetry in a bit of an organic, roundabout way. We were waiting somewhere – don’t ask me where – without books or toys, and I offered to tell my children a “rhyming story.” I recited Custard the Dragon and Jabberwocky to their rapt attention and when begged for an encore, I had to wind down with In Flanders Fields and Invictus. Eventually I had to stop reciting. I had reached the limits of my memorized repertoire. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” I told a disappointed K, “those are all the poems I know off by heart.”
We’ve been reading poetry together on a daily basis for a few weeks now. K and I have been working together on memorizing Tartary and Tyger Tyger. She can recite the first verse of each of those ones, and we’ve taken to using them to practice her speech therapy sounds. N can complete every line of The Owl and the Pussycat if I give him the first word or two. I can’t express how full my heart feels when I hear them reciting poetry. I love the sounds of the words as they trip off a toddler’s tongue. I hope that years down the road they will, at oddly appropriate times, be struck with the memory of a few lines of verse that we read long ago, and that the lines will bring them comfort, inspiration, and wonder.
In the meantime, poetry time in our home is synonymous with quiet, snuggly, family time. We don’t always use the book. After all, there’s something undeniably sweet about K saying, “Mummy, I want to hear a poem off your heart.” Absolutely, little girl. For you and your siblings, I always speak – and sing, and recite – off my heart.