In the high-backed chair near the front door of our house, I sat in my mother’s lap listening as she read from the green, cloth-covered edition of Read-Aloud Poems Every Young Child Should Know. The words sang in my ears; the rhythms and rhymes rocked my small body toward sleep. Some poems I knew by heart in my mother’s voice, poems with magic letters that swam in confusion before my eyes, but which made such beautiful sense or nonsense when my mother miraculously raised them off the page. The King’s Breakfast by A.A. Milne provided a delicious romp as the king (the king!) slid down the banisters in a fit of joy after finally getting butter for his bread. And The Butterbean Tent by Elizabeth Madox Roberts spoke to me as an only child who already knew the satisfaction of hiding away to watch the workings of the natural world.
As I grew and the mysteries of reading opened to me, I spent hours between the pages of The Real Mother Goose, Just Around the Corner by Leland B. Jacobs, and in the madcap world of Dr. Seuss. Dick and Jane readers at school were poor substitutes for the books on my own shelves, or the wonders available up the winding stairs in the Children’s Room of Warder Public Library. Miss Neer, new fourth grade teacher at Possum Elementary, loved poetry too and I ventured to show her a few of my early, no doubt, highly plagiarized poems. She read them to the class, and I saw my classmates look at me a little differently. Something shifted inside of me and I began to think, cautiously, of myself as a writer.
After surviving old Mrs. Young for English in seventh grade, I rounded the corner, literally, to her daughter, Miss Young, for eighth grade English where modern poetry lived. She read to us each day from a slim volume with the oddest, most confusing title: Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse. Here I heard poems with a different, deeper music, not always easy to decipher, but with a truth I wanted more of. When the life-saving Scholastic Book Club offered the paperback of Reflections in its monthly flyer, I scraped together the money to buy my own copy and read and reread the apology of William Carlos Williams, the resume of Dorothy Parker, and the sonic boom of John Updike.
As lives do, mine took unpredictable twists and turns toward poetry and away, but the urge was always there. Nighttime creative writing classes and experiments with writer’s groups widened my experience and reading while my days were filled with teaching and family. Somewhere in the 1990’s, Bill Moyers’ visits and interviews with poets recorded at The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival sealed the deal. I was a poet. I had finally identified my tribe, my people, the true work of my life.
But as a teacher and mother, writing my own words was not enough. I held my children on my lap as my mother had done to give them the gift of poetry, and I went into the schools of southeast Ohio, unfunded and unfettered, to spread the joy with kids who might not find poetry on their own. The payoff has come years later when a boy, now man, stops me at a ballgame to say, “Remember that poetry anthology we did in fourth grade? I still have that,” or the recent valedictorian who threw her arms around me in Wendy’s, to say with quiet happiness, “I’m still writing.”
Poetry is that powerful.
–this essay first appeared in Follow the Thread, A Power of Poetry anthology http://www.powerofpoetry.org