Documenting my family's past for future generations. My family tree includes the Smith/Mansell families of Alabama and Oklahoma, the Castle/Day families of Kentucky and Oklahoma, the Wheat/Ming families of Texas and Oklahoma, and the Bell/Roberts families of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ode to Poetry

April is Poetry Month, and I can't let the month go by without writing about how important poetry has been in my life and how it still brings back memories of my family.

As I mentioned in my post, "Grandparent #2: Frances (Fannie) Lou Castle," my grandmother could recite long narrative poems that she learned in the 4th grade. When I think of them, they bring back memories of childhood Christmases and birthdays, occasions when we begged her to recite them. I have searched in vain on the Internet and in old poetry books for copies of these poems. I guess the point is that, while I don't remember them in their entirety, some verses are there in my mind and come back to me clearly, even today.

So do more familiar poems, the kind by famous authors that you find in poetry anthologies. She was always reciting some small snatch of a favorite poem and certain situations still bring them to my mind. The weather or season often elicited from her some little part of a poem; on a beautiful autumn day she would talk about "October's bright blue weather." The whole first stanza of the poem by Helen Hunt Jackson says:

          O suns and skies and clouds of June,
          And flowers of June together.
          Ye cannot rival for one hour
          October's bright blue weather.

I always liked that one because October was my birthday month.

The sight of a bird in winter brought this nursery rhyme. 

          The north wind doth blow,
          And we shall have snow,
          And what will poor robin do then?
          He'll sit in a barn,
          And keep himself warm,
          And hide his head under his wing,
          Poor thing.

Stubbornness on my part might cause her to recite:

          There was a little girl
          And she had a little curl
          Right down in the middle of her forehead.

          When she was good
          She was very very good 
          And when she was bad she was horrid.

Out driving on a winter day, as we often did, might bring these first lines of "Snow-Bound" by John Greenleaf Whittier:

          The sun that brief December day
          Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
          And, darkly circled, gave at noon
          A sadder light than waning moon.

Haven't you seen winter days just like that?

My dad was my grandmother's pupil at Pleasant Porter Elementary School in 6th grade. He especially remembered two exciting narrative poems that they studied while in her room: "Sohrab and Rustum" by Matthew Arnold and "Horatio at the Bridge" by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay. Carrying on this warlike theme, I remember choosing "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson as my poem to recite in front of the class in 8th grade. (I was in love with the 1930s/1940s actor, Errol Flynn, and had seen his movie of the same name.) I still remember most of the poem, including the refrain

          Cannons to right of them
          Cannons to left of them
          Cannons in front of them
          Volleyed and thundered.

I can't believe I stood up in front of my 8th grade class and recited:

          Into the mouth of Hell
          Rode the six hundred.

The other poem I remember from school was one we were required to recite in 9th grade. I hated it--probably because, at age 14, I didn't really understand it. I still remember lines from it, though. It was "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley.

          Out of the night that covers me
          Black as the pit from pole to pole
          I thank whatever gods may be
          For my unconquerable soul.

Nothing I had endured up until 9th grade--even reciting this poem in class--had led me to think my soul was in danger of being conquered.

My mother also loved poetry and made her own book of her Favorite Poems when she was in 6th grade.

It's nice to know that she also loved Emily Dickinson.

In his later life my dad identified with a poem by John Burroughs called "Waiting." After a couple of truly tragic things that happened to my dad in his life, it gives me peace to know he could face his future as fate tempered with hope. Here is the first stanza of "Waiting."

          Serene, I fold my hands and wait,
          Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea;
          I rave no more 'gainst time or fate
          For lo! my own shall come to me.

In my grandmother's later life, when she had lost so many siblings and friends to death, she often recited "The Last Leaf" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I can only remember the final stanza:

          And if I should live to be
          The last leaf on the tree
                    In the spring;
          Let them smile, as I do now
          At the old forsaken bough
                    Where I cling.

But the poem of my grandmother's that I remembered when she died in 1992 at age 95 was "The Chambered Nautilus," also by Oliver Wendell Holmes. With some difficulty and tears, I read it at her funeral service.

          Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
          As the swift seasons roll!
          Leave thy low-vaulted past!
          Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
          Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
          Till thou at length art free,
          Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!

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