Wednesday, February 09, 2011

`To Take Us Lands Away'

Along with the usual story books, I took a chance and pulled two volumes of poems off the shelves in the school library. Both were selected – by the purchasing librarian, by me -- with children in mind, but only one was written with children in mind: Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare, in print since first published in 1913. This was a 1989 reprint from Henry Holt and Co., with indifferent illustrations by Louise Brierley.

The second, part of the “Poetry for Young People” series from the Sterling Publishing Co., was Emily Dickinson (1989), edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin, illustrated almost as indifferently as the de la Mare by Chi Chung. Dickinson, perhaps our greatest poet, I chose as a challenge. Could I hold the attention of kindergarteners with her gnomic eccentricities? I played it safe and started with stories – four titles in the “Pig Pig” series by David McPhail, which offered many opportunities for deep nasal oinking. Then on to de la Mare, a poem chosen almost at random (I was going for brevity and funny-sounds appeal) because I had no time to review the material – “The Bees’ Song”:

“Thousandz of thornz there be
On the Rozez where gozez
The Zebra of Zee:
Sleek, striped, and hairy,
The steed of the Fairy
Princess of Zee.

“Heavy with blossomz be
The Rozez that growzez
In the thickets of Zee.
Where grazez the Zebra,
Marked Abracadeeebra,
Of the Princess of Zee.

“And he nozez that poziez
Of the Rozez that grozez
So luvez'm and free,
With an eye, dark and wary,
In search of a Fairy,
Whose Rozez he knowzez
Were not honeyed for he,
But to breathe a sweet incense
To solace the Princess
Of far-away Zee.”

It went on a little too long so I silently elided some lines in the middle, but all the “Z” sounds were a big hit, as was the bee I made with my right hand, stinger/index finger extended, buzzing and stinging. While reading it, I remembered Dickinson often wrote about bees, so I was pleased to find several bee poems in the Schoonmaker selection, including:

“The Bee is not afraid of me.
I know the Butterfly.
The pretty people in the Woods
Receive me cordially --

“The Brooks laugh louder when I come --
The Breezes madder play;
Wherefore mine eye thy silver mists,
Wherefore, Oh Summer's Day?”

An excellent poem on another rainy morning in February in the Pacific Northwest. And this, an old favorite, the one I always remember when encountering the word “revery”:

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.”

And this:

“The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him
Is aristocracy.”

I bagged explications and played up the iambs. Most of the kids listened. Dickinson isn’t conventional kindergarten-fodder but the poems are brief and rhymed, so I virtually sang them. By then, time was up. I have no illusions about planting poetry seeds. TV and DVDs are more seductive, and father of one kid is a computer-game designer. I’ve met the guy, and I’m fairly certain there’s no Dickinson or de la Mare on his shelves. The Dickinson volume, however, offered consolation:

“There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry --
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll --
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.”

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