Poetry in the schools, at home, and everywhere in between.
THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY
April 12, 2016
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Source Poems: "The Land of Counterpane"
For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.
with so many things in my life, I changed my “source poem” plans at the last
had intended to write about Deborah Digges’ incantatory “To a Milkweed,” a touchstone in my
return to writing poetry in the past decade. Or maybe about “The Mower,” which
shows the grim old Brit Philip Larkin as the softy we always suspected he’d be.
after reading J. C. Elkin’s entry in this series on the mysterious dragon
“Hannibal Clim,” I realized that I had to revisit Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The
Land of Counterpane.”
suspect that I first encountered what we call poetry in A Child’s Garden ofVerses, which my mother read to me. I am trying to hear her voice now, reading
it, and I can’t. I should be sad, but at least it brings back the memory, and
the concomitant gratitude, that she gave me the gift of reading. [AA: Stevenson's "The Swing," also from A Child's Garden of Verses, is the first poem I remember reading. Read more here.]
closer, I realize that this poem is responsible for the best and the worst of
who I am: it’s an integral part of my love of words, and it’s inextricably tied
to my sloth. Regard the first stanza:
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.
I learned that one could lie a-bed, sick, and still be happy, a dangerous
concept indeed if one is prone to fantasizing about being a Victorian lady of
the thwarted intellectual persuasion, dropping posy-tied manuscripts and
candied violets to the children at the window and courting suitors via sly
essays in the local weekly.
bliss (for the amateur invalid, not the truly suffering) to be bedridden! So
many happy hours spent with a bowl of buttered white rice, a tankard of ginger
ale, at least one cat, and a TiVo full of “Law & Order” reruns! To feel
soft sheets against bare skin, to turn the pillow over to its cool side and
bunch it up under that achy part of your neck…
sure that I tried playing with my toys in bed after first hearing this poem. I
didn’t have soldiers, but there was that plastic barn with the farm animals
smaller than a dime and the cunning little fences. I might have noticed for the
first time how the gentle rolls of bedspread, arranged not by artifice but by
the natural movement of my body, resembled hills.
I relished the word “counterpane.” I never thought of it as the name of a
country, but I valued its unfamiliar formality. Some words carry their
oddnesses on their shoulders like the bindled vagabonds seen in stories (have
you ever seen, in earthly life, a wanderer carrying a bundle on a stick?). The
oddness matters more than the soul inhabiting the word. Words from my childhood
I don’t hear anymore: davenport, Victrola, cursive, percolator. Each is a book
poem bristles with action: soldiers (if I were workshopping this poem, I’d
question the adjective “leaden”), sailors, even urban development. Amid it all,
the sick child is the prime mover, a young god, a small person made giant by
power and juxtaposition. Even when stilled by illness, the creator can rest and
contemplate what he has made: “dale and plain / The pleasant land of
many lessons on poetry are held in this one brief poem?
The Land of Counterpane
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.
Pamela Murray Winters is a student in the low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poems have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Gargoyle, Fledgling Rag, Beltway Poetry, Delaware Poetry Review, and other publications. She co-hosts the Evil Grin Poetry Series in Annapolis, Maryland. A native of Takoma Park, Maryland, she lives in Churchton, Maryland, with her husband and menagerie.