Wednesday, March 30, 2011

`At the Call of the Imagination'

In a hurry and almost late, as usual, I grabbed one book off the school library shelf on the way to read-aloud time with the kindergarteners – This Delicious Day: 65 Poems (1983), edited by Paul B. Janeczko. I scanned the table of contents and selected, almost at random but with brevity in mind, “Celery” by Ogden Nash:

“Celery, raw,
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.”

Accompanied by crunching and moist chewing sounds, my reading was politely received. On the facing page, conveniently, was “Arbuckle Jones” by Peter Wesley-Smith:

“Arbuckle Jones
When flustered
Eats custard
With mustard.

“I’m disgustard.”

This too was a bone fide hit, as food poems and anything with monkeys or underwear usually are among five-year-olds. So I moved on to “Alligator Pie” by Dennis Lee, a Canadian, as the final stanza suggests:

“Alligator soup, alligator soup,
If I don't get some I think I'm gonna droop.
Give away my hockey stick, give away my hoop,
But don't give away my alligator soup.”

This library assignment started with two boys – one autistic but cheerily charming, though he hardly speaks; the other what was called in less linguistically dishonest times, “backwards” – slow, self-absorbed, immature, with a rudimentary attention span, but not a bad kid. By now, about a dozen boys and girls, always in flux around the two founding members, gather with me on the floor to listen and look at the pictures. In some I detect the germ of imagination, a sense of humor, even incipient bookishness. In his 1990 essay “Toward a Fateful Serenity” (A Jacques Barzun Reader, 2002), Barzun writes:

“Accepting life whole and keeping one’s love of art from idolatry means remembering that nonliving things must be loved soberly. The living have first claim, and fellow feeling for them should stir not only at the sight of sorrow and pain, but at the call of the imagination.”

In some of the kids I faintly hear “the call of the imagination,” which I also hear, unexpectedly, in This Delicious Day, which proved a time-released blessing. I read more poems to the kids, including an X.J. Kennedy number that fell flat, but I kept the book and read it over lunch. That’s when I found “Stone” from a cycle of four short poems, “Things,” by Donald Justice (Departures, 1973):

“Hard, but you can polish it.
Precious, it has eyes. Can wound.
Would dance upon water. Sinks.
Stays put. Crushed, becomes a road.”

Without the title, it’s a riddle, almost a compressed parable, reminding me of Zbigniew Herbert’s "Pebble." I like “Precious, it has eyes,” which reminds me of an Alec Wilder song title – “It’s Silk, Feel It.” I was also surprised by another poem unlikely to appeal to five-year-olds – “The Beach at Evening” by David Ferry (On the Way to the Island, 1960):

“The beach at this evening full
Tide is a fisherman’s back,
Whose bright muscles of rock
Glisten and strain as they pull
The cast net of the sea
In with a full catch
Of pebble, shell, and other
Things that belong to the sea.”

The conceit, in my experience, is novel – beach as fisherman, sea as net. Justice’s and Ferry’s are pleasing minor works by good poets, inhabiting that uncertain space between children and adults, light verse and – what? Serious verse? Too solemn, even pretentious. The poems have in common, rather, a certain sort of reader, one unafraid to laugh or at least silently relish wit.

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