Friday, May 28, 2010

`The Art and Wisdom Rare'

We visited the school library to collect books for reading aloud in class. Most of our kids are non-verbal so you might argue that a careful perusal of the shelves is a waste of time, except that I do most of the reading and have a good sense of what holds their attention – strongly rhythmic poetry and anything allowing me to improvise sound effects and funny voices. Most of the stridently message-laden kiddie lit favored by right-minded teachers and librarians is a flop with this crowd.

A quick browse through the 800s turned up a treasure – Walter de la Mare’s time-tested anthology Come Hither (1923), a 1966 hardcover reprint by Knopf that looks pleasingly beaten-up. Of course: Almost 800 pages of English poetry, most of it formal, much of it appropriate for a classroom of special-education students who know little about poetry but know what they like. Back in class I first trolled de la Mare’s chapter devoted to “Beasts of the Field: Fowls of the Air.” At reading time I started with Tennyson’s “Song – The Owl,” which de la Mare titles “When Cats Run Home” after its first line, followed by another Tennyson (no one like him, the Stan Kenton of Victorian poetry, for swing), “The Eagle.” I don’t know much about Ralph Hodgson but I threw in “Stupidity Street” for the sake of its title (I know people who live there).

I used my plummiest voice, milking the vowels and rolling the R’s, and the staff laughed and the kids listened, so I took a chance, leafed forward to de la Mare’s “Summer: Greenwood: Solitude” chapter and read aloud William Drummond ‘s “The Book” (elsewhere titled “Human Folly”):

“Of this fair volume which we World do name
If we the sheets and leaves could turn with care,
Of him who it corrects, and did it frame,
We clear might read the art and wisdom rare.

“Find out His power which wildest powers doth tame,
His providence extending everywhere,
His justice which proud rebels doth not spare
In every page, no period of the same.

“But silly we, like foolish children, rest
Well pleased with colour'd vellum, leaves of gold,
Fair dangling ribbands, leaving what is best,
On the great Writer's sense ne'er taking hold;

“Or if by chance we stay our minds on aught,
It is some picture on the margin wrought.”

Drummond (1585-1649) was a younger Scottish contemporary of Shakespeare but this sonnet has more of Spenser about it. I like the sustained bookish conceit coupled with conversational ease -- “But silly we, like foolish children…” De la Mare writes in his notes:

“This poem, I think, carries with it the thought that in study of that great book, that fair volume called the World, there is no full stop, no limit, pause, conclusion. Like bees, with their nectar and honeycomb, man stores up his knowledge and experience in books. These and his houses outlast him; the things he makes; and here and there a famous or happy or tragic name is for a while remembered. Else, we are given our brief chequered busy lives – then vanish away, seeming but restless phantoms in Time’s panoramic dream.”

I’d lost my audience, of course, and somebody had to go to the bathroom but there's always another day at school. One who reads a poem aloud is also its listener, like singers who know their lyrics from the inside and deliver them with relaxed conviction. I had my chance to "read the art and wisdom rare."

1 comment:

Left-Footer said...

Wonderful, and you are so absolutely right.

Teaching muti-ethnic classes of boys in London 30 years ago, I found that Matthew Arnold's, "Sohrab and Rustum" was always a huge success. They love incantatory poetry.