During last year's National Poetry Month series, poet Dennis Kirschbaum earned the distinction of writing the most-viewed guest-post. Read it here.
The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.
Robert Louis Stevenson
On a dreary, overcast morning earlier this month, I emerged from the D.C. Metro Station at Gallery Place and headed to my warm office a few blocks away. A steady rain was falling as I moved from the dry station entrance into the puddles that filled the sidewalk leading to the corner of 7th and H Streets. As I navigated a sea of black, blue, and red umbrellas, four lines of verse, a complete poem, popped into my head as they have on every rainy day for the last 46 years. I don’t know the exact day, hour or even the month I first heard the short poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, but I remember the event itself and the way I felt at the time.
It was a rainy day that’s for sure. There’s a good chance it was April. I was sitting in Mrs. Cook’s first grade class at Beechfield Elementary School in the Irvington neighborhood of southwest Baltimore. My teacher had in her hands a gorgeous edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. The page she was holding up showed a black and white photograph of a little brown haired girl looking out of a rain covered window. She peered through the window with resignation at whatever she saw or didn’t see on the other side. As I recall, the entire book was filled with beautiful black and white photographs illustrating the poems. However, as clearly as I remember the photo of the girl, I don’t remember a single other picture in the book.
|Illustration by Bessie Collins Pease, 1905|
Source: CTG Publishing
I told my mother that I needed a copy of that book. There was a series of futile visits to bookstores and the department stores of the era: Hutzler’s, Korvette’s, and Hochschild Kohn’s. Ah, the patience of mothers! However, the edition of the book with the beautiful photographs was nowhere to be found. Finally, I accepted another edition with the classic illustrations by Eulalie. Strange to think now that one of my most prized possessions, this little green edition from 1961, the year of my birth, was a runner up for my affection.
I don’t know if I was able to read the book when I first got it. Probably not. I remember camping in the Catskills the following summer with a stack of “I Can Read” books and by the end of that summer, I could! I read A Child’s Garden of Verses many times from cover to cover over the next few years.
Stevenson was born in Scotland in 1850. He wrote many of the classics of children’s literature including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and for a more adult audience, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There are no cars in A Child’s Garden of Verses. No telephones. No television. The street lamps are gas and have to be lit by a man named Leerie who carries a ladder to reach the nozzles. It was a different world from Baltimore in the 1960s, yet much of what he described was familiar to a child of that time: the entertainment afforded by one’s own shadow, the way a hole at the beach fills with water if you dig deep, the smell of leaves burning in autumn, and, of course, the rain that seems ubiquitous and eternal when its falling on your house and you can’t go out to play.
In Woody Allen’s hit movie, Midnight in Paris, the protagonist, Gil Pender played by Owen Wilson, is accused of “golden age thinking.” Golden age thinking is, according to the character who coins the phrase, “the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one's living in… a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Gil is a writer and dreams of living in Paris where he is vacationing with his fiancee and her overbearing parents. Gil loves the romance of the 1920s and imagines himself alongside Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Soon he finds himself transported back in time every evening to hobnob and dance the night away with his idols and receive criticism and advice on his novel from Stein herself.
Perhaps those with an interest in writing are pre-disposed to golden age thinking, or maybe it is just a coincidence, but I find that I have a tendency to idealize what it might have been like to live in an earlier, and what appears from our vantage point, simpler time. I even have a modest collection of items from my personal golden age, roughly 1937-1957. My father’s slide rule, a Remington Quiet Riter typewriter, several mechanical watches, and a stapler that makes its own staples from spool of brass wire can be found among my dresser drawers and on my desktop. I write with a Parker fountain pen, which I fill from a bottle.
Of course, I understand that the idealized past is only a fantasy. Those of us given to idolizing the past tend to forget about the things that went along with the ‘simpler times.’ Polio, poor sanitation, surgery without anesthesia, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and bad coffee are all parts of a past we would just as soon forget. Perhaps such selective contemplation about a time one might not have experienced first-hand is indeed “a flaw in the romantic imagination.” Yet it is also true that the joys and sorrows, the celebrations and sufferings of our writing forbearers were strikingly similar to our own. This is why Stevenson’s poems, like all great art, still resonate with so many today. It’s why the book remains in print in many different editions (though none sadly, with black and white photographs) more than a century and a quarter after it was first published. In the poems, Stevenson captures the essence of what it means to be or to have been a child, the wonder, wisdom, wildness of that mind. It’s a color and quality of childhood that we still recognize in children today and in the children we once were.
No doubt there are other poems of Stevenson that capture the universal experience of childhood across space and time better than “Rain” but for me this short poem is a well from which I continue to draw. Perhaps it is the music of it, or the fact that it is the first poem I remember hearing read aloud, or maybe that I instantly memorized it, or just that I am reminded of it so often, especially in these kind, cruel months of early spring. The tune of it arrives as an earworm with the feeling of drops on my face. Or, maybe, it is the face of the brown haired girl at the window still haunting my flawed romantic imagination. The two of us peer through the streaked panes of glass and wonder when, or if, the sun will shine again, as it did in a far away country, a century before either of us was born.
Here is a poem about boyhood.
by Dennis Kirschbaum
While the other scouts slept with sighs
deepening beneath mildewed canvas
in the dark-at-last summer night,
we escaped to pine woods, took seats
among the needles. We made a blaze
from paper scraps and exploding
cones. Sky told stories of the lodge
his folks had in Colorado, how deep
was the snow and the wolves
they’d hear at night and can you hear
them now calling, calling at the edge
of this stand just beyond Baltimore?
Before sunrise, we drowned the embers
with our piss, boys who conquered everything.
|Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent|
Dennis M. Kirschbaum is Hillel International’s Associate Vice President for Campus Services. His chapbook of poetry, Clattering East, was published in 2013 by Finishing Line Press. He has traveled extensively in India, Thailand, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt and is an Adirondack 46er having hiked to the summit of the 46 highest peaks in New York state. He has reconciled his checking account to the penny every month since 1979. He lives with his family in Washington Grove, Md.