April 12, 2016

Friday, August 31, 2012

Poetry Friday: When Did You Fall in Love?

When did you fall in love with poetry?

I once heard Jimmy Santiago Baca read. He discovered poetry in jail. He was learning to read, found poetry, and became a poet himself.

My friend, the poet Svea Barrett, says that poetry saved her during a difficult time in her life.

I fell in love on the floor of my brother's bedroom, on a sunny day in the late 1970s. My youngest brother was an infant and I was eight. Was he sleeping or playing quietly? Maybe he wasn't in the room at all. A copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses sat in my lap.

We had plenty of books. I was familiar with nursery rhymes and books like The Big Orange Splot and Fortunately were family favorites. We also loved the Mr. Men series, which we'd brought back from trips to my mother's native England (you couldn't get them in the U.S. back then).

I loved books, but this was different. On this day, I had an experience. Like an epiphany.

This illustration looks vaguely familiar.

The Swing

How do you like to go up in a swing,
   Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
   Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
   Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
   Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
   Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
   Up in the air and down!
The weird thing was, I knew that place. My grandparents had a big house on the outskirts of a small Nottinghamshire village. We visited once a year. I had "my own" bedroom in their house. And from that bedroom's high window, I could literally look "over the wall,/ Till I can see so wide,/ Rivers and trees and cattle and all/ Over the countryside."

I remember, I couldn't stop staring at the picture in my book. That someone could describe this place that was special to me. In that moment, I was in our house in New Jersey, but I could see the landscape of far away England. I read the words again and felt the swinging motion in the rhythm. I could picture myself on that swing, high up, looking at the farms and fields surrounding my grandparents' house. I could picture myself coming down -- the brown brick of the house, my grandmother's rock garden beyond the kitchen window.

I think that I have loved poetry ever since. My next big crush was Edgar Allan Poe. Then William Carlos Williams. All along, I kept writing.

A high school field trip to the first Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival sealed the deal. There, I was introduced to modern poets like Sonia Sanchez. The first poet I heard on that trip was Galway Kinnell, reading in a small church. The early light shone on him as he read -- I felt transported.

I love sharing poetry with children. I never know which poem is going to spark a light in which kid. (My daughter is partial to Calef Brown, particularly his poem "Olf," about a terrible -- as in not very good at his job -- pirate.)

What about you? Do you remember your first poetry epiphany, when the art form grabbed your heart and wouldn't let go?
Poetry makes me feel like this guy.
Today's Poetry Friday host is Sylvia at Poetry for Children. Stop by for more poetic epiphanies. 


Michael Ratcliffe said...

Hi Laura. Thanks for this post-- it's nice to stop and think about that moment when each of us fell in love with poetry. I think the moment for me was sometime in 2002, a bit before I turned 40. I had written poems in high school and college, but pretty much stopped all creative writing through my 20s and 30s, except for a few poems here and there for my wife, and a few fun dabblings at work (I once wrote out the metropolitan statistical area criteria in haiku-- wish I still had that). I read poetry during that time, although I was not a particularly avid reader. Something clicked in 2002-- call it an epiphany, if you will-- and I had to write. A shelf was cleared of history and geography books to make room for books of poetry, and then a second shelf. It's hard now to remember those years when poetry wasn't an important part of my life.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Mike. The metropolitan statistical area criteria in haiku says boatloads -- maybe save that for a character down the road. Who are some of the poets you have "discovered" since your big poetic shift?

Tabatha said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for sharing that beautiful memory with us. I can't remember my "first love" moment, but it might very well have been Shel Silverstein.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Tabatha. Shel Silverstein always makes me think of 1) The Giving Tree (loved) and 2) the Silverstein I bought for my best friend's 14th birthday, then got into huge trouble with her mother because it wasn't exactly rated G. Ouch.

Dennis M. Kirschbaum said...


Crazily enough, my first poetry love was also, A Child's Garden of Verses! My first grade teacher read us some of the poems from a beautiful edition filled with black and white photographs of children. I dragged my mother all over Baltimore looking for that edition (no Amazon!). We never found it and I settled for a different edition which had the illustration that you used on your blog from The Swing. I think they are by an artist named EULALIE. I still have the little green cloth bound book to this day! And to this day, whenever it rains, I say to myself:

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

Thanks for this delightful post!

Michael Ratcliffe said...


Hmmm... which poets to list? Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah poems inspired me to write my "Skimino Cycle" of poems based in family history. Reading Neruda led me to Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez (I also have a general interest in 1930's Spain). I fell in love with the Japanese haiku masters, Basho, Issa, and Buson, and the Chinese "Immortals," Li Po, Du Fu, and Wang Wei. A recommendation from a local book store owner in Santa Fe led me to the late Jim Sagel, and his descriptions of life among the Hispanos of northern New Mexico. Who else? the Beats: Ginsberg, Snyder, Kerouac (although I like his prose better than his poetry); Mexican poet Alberto Blanco (picked up a copy of his "Dawn of the Senses" at City Lights the last time I was in San Francisco). I just discovered Campbell McGrath-- bought a copy of his "Seven Notebooks" at Dedalus Books, and am really enjoying it. And, I "rediscovered" the 14th century Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, going back to a bi-lingual volume of his poetry (edited by Rachel Bromwich) that I bought in Oxford in 1987. Ah, I could on...

Michael Ratcliffe said...

And, Whitman... how could I forget Walt Whitman?! According to family lore, my great-great grandparents gave my great-grandfather, George Walter Ratcliffe, his middle name out of respect for Walt Whitman (they named other sons Fremont (after John Fremont), Winfield Scott, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant)

Author Amok said...

Dennis, that poems is one of the songs on Ted Jacobs' amazing CD "A Children's Garden of Song." They are folk music versions of many poems from the book. Just beautiful.

Author Amok said...

I love the family story, Mike. I have to say, the NJ poets (Williams, Whitman, Ginsberg in particular) have my heart because I am a Jersey Girl. New Jersey has a rich heritage of poets and poetry.

Lalita said...

Here is an excerpt from the last story in "Where Monsoons Cry," my collection of short stories. Need I say more?

"Jaya is reminded of her favorite poem, “The Swing.” She remembers how Sister Joan would assemble the children and spread them out among the drooping roots and branches of a sprawling old banyan tree to recite the poem. Grasping the long hanging rope-like roots as if they were the ropes of swings, the children bent their knees, pretending, doggedly swaying, rising and falling in happy little waves to the rhythm of the poem. She hears their collective childish voices, especially her own—
'Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,'

She hears them smacking their lips and giggling at the word “Up-p-p,” exaggerating “wide” to wi-i-de.”

'River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—'

Jaya joins in now, the words returning as if it were yesterday, as she pushes Neelam. Her heart feels airy, light as the flitting butterflies around them.
'Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!'

“Go on, go on,” Jaya calls joyfully, “Neelam, from here you’ll touch the sky and the stars and the moon.”
And in that instant her mind is made up.

Thanks for the post.

jama said...

For me it was definitely Stevenson too! Only it was "My Shadow." I loved A Child's Garden of Verses -- read it over and over. Can't remember which edition I had or who did the illustrations but my experience was similar to yours . . . being transported, entering the world of the poem, stepping right into the picture, everything coming to life right there.

What totally sealed the deal was discovering E.E. Cummings in high school. He remains my favorite to this day.

Katya said...

My mom made me start memorizing poetry as soon as I could talk so I don't remember when I fell in love... but I remember reading e.e. cummings as a teen and being mesmerized by his voice.

Irene Latham said...

"My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse." Gabriel Garcia Marquez was talking about ME when he said that. I've fallen in love so many times it's hard to remember the first -- but probably it was Shel Silverstein. Love SO MUCH your memory and story about "The Swing." Lovely!

Author Amok said...

Hi, Jama. "My Shadow" is a beautiful poem. That book is so rich in imagery and thought. (Yes to e. e. cummings -- he was my high school yearbook quote!)

Katya, what a gift your mother gave you. Poetry was part of the speech you were acquiring.

Author Amok said...

Lalita, thank you for stopping by the blog and for sharing that beautiful excerpt from your novel. I am awed to find that my experience with this poem is a shared one. Sending you gratitude!

Vikram Madan said...

I think I might be the only person for whom it was Edward Lear's Jumblies ... :)
I grew up in India where it was - sadly - hard to come by poetry as a kid. For most of my childhood I only owned one single anthology of poems - the Jumblies was my favorite poem in that book.

Tara @ A Teaching Life said...

You know Svea Barrett too?! A wonderful poet, mother, teacher and friend...and a fellow resident of the state of New Jersey. I fell in love with poetry through Emily Dickinson. I didn't understand the words years ago, but I love they way they sounded and stuck around in my head, waiting to be puzzled out.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Vikram. I only came across the Jumblies later in life. I'll have to check Lear out again. Have you looked at Wilbur's books of opposites poems?

Tara, yes. Svea and I taught together when I lived in NJ and have remained good friends. (I moved to Maryland 13 years ago). I agree with you about Dickinson -- I still struggle to understand her sometimes, but can't help being swept up in the music.

GatheringBooks said...

Hi Laura, what a lovely question. I think I've always been in love with poetry ever since Dr. Seuss' wordsmithing in his books that put me to bed - all those quirky rhymes and made-up words. This is such a lovely post. Too often we take for granted these beautiful things that come into our lives - reminds me to be grateful of poetry and the calm and quiet it gives me.

Author Amok said...

Thank you for the kind comment, Myra. It's been lovely to read everyone's responses. This is a rich area to explore!

My kids love Dr. Seuss's "The Sleep Book" and we'd read it before bed. It's long, so we tried to get away with not reading the whole thing.

You're right, poetry is a gift in our lives.

Mary Lee said...

What a memory! I loved that poem, too, but I'm not sure I fell in love with poetry to it. I'll have to dig deep to find that first stirring...

Jeff Barger said...

Thank you for your post. This is a great question. I remember reading Longfellow's Evangeline in high school and thinking poetry was pretty cool.

Jeff Barger said...

Thank you for your post. This is a great question. I remember reading Longfellow's Evangeline in high school and thinking poetry was pretty cool.