Give her rhymes, not poetry, and they’ll likely stay with her

by Mr. Sheehy

I dropped a link last week to an article from Sally Thomas on poetry–“Re: Is Billy Collins Killing Poetry?“–because I was intrigued by her thoughtful explanation of the oral tradition in poetry. She draws attention to the link between the sound of a poem and our ability to remember it:

I’m an avid reader-aloud of poetry, especially to my children, and I’ll tell anyone willing to listen (again, my children, who really have no choice) that it’s our ears primarily, not our eyes, which remember poems.

When I teach poetry to my freshmen and we ask the question, “What is great poetry?” one of the sub-questions we ask is, “Is it the sound of a poem?” The question is an important one for me, and students can tell I love the sound a poem makes. I suppose they pick this up from my passionate readings of every poem we encounter–I usually read as if I were auditioning for a the book-on-tape version–but I also like to tell them about my love for John Keats, a love borne almost entirely out of the sounds of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” (admittedly a fascination with his early death helped). These were my favorite poems before I comprehended half of what they said.

Not that I remember them that well–they’re a bit too long to remember without expending actual effort, and I have yet to try–but what I do recall, I recall through my auditory experience.

Thinking about the poetry I have memorized, the rhyming appears to be the dominant thread of success. Mrs. Sutton had us memorize  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in fourth grade, and when I walked into my student-teaching 17 years later and heard a class reciting it, I had it down again within two minutes. Could I have done so without the rhyme or the meter to guide me? I highly doubt it.

I also remember a handful of poems from William Carlos Williams, but that’s mostly because it’s not that difficult to recall one sentence. Even then, I can’t say with confidence whether so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain water beside the white chicken or whether it depends upon the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens (by the way, it’s neither). And as much as I enjoy Billy Collins and Jane Kenyon, I keep losing “An Introduction to Poetry” despite opening my poetry unit with it every year, and I am so bad at remembering “Whirligigs” that I haven’t ventured to commit any of Jane’s more powerful work to mind.

Yet I spout off Puck’s last words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with nary an effort and accidentally memorized the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. What a mess I am.

Or rather, what a fool I would be to give up on the power of the rhyme and consistent meter, which is exactly what I have done in recent years while reading poetry. I tend to develop an obsession with a new poet each year, usually beginning the affair about a month before my teaching of poetry (this is why poetry is consistently my favorite unit), and as I think back to the last five or six obsessions, I can’t recall anyone who used rhyme more than sporadically. Not surprisingly, I also cannot recite any poems that I encountered for the first time within the last five years. For the most part, I have gravitated towards the insight and the image, neglecting the meter and the rhyme almost completely.

I don’t use meter or rhyme in my own poetry–I tend to mimic  Collins and find that he is right: when I read his poetry, “it encourages the writing of more poetry.” Not being a poet, I imitate that which is possible for me to imitate. That does not compliment Collins, a man whose poetry has brought me much pleasure, but it is the truth. For me, rhyming simply alerts me of the limits to my vocabulary, so I avoid it. It is easier to build a poem off one image and to tie that image to a more general insight, letting the lines break where they will, than to make the poem regular or rhyming. Saying that reminds me of an admired colleague who always discourages her students from using rhyme in their own poetry–perhaps she discourages it because their vocabularies cripple the first couplet and then paralyze the work that follows.

But, oh, this is not the fault of the device! Inspired by Thomas’s stories about her children’s favorite poets, I have been reading poetry to my daughters this week. I like Jack Prelutsky a lot and we did listen to Shel Silverstein’s “A Light in the Attic” readings, if for no other reason than to let me recall the cassette of Shel I wore out in my Fisher Price tape deck. What my eldest has begun to do is ask me for more. That’s nothing notable, I realize. What is notable is that she doesn’t ask for another poem. She asks “for another rhyme.”

Prelutsky’s vocabulary is frequently beyond her ability to comprehend. A tomato’s “unmitigated rancor” would stupefy most of my freshmen, let alone a four-year old. Yet she knows enough to follow it (I help with the details) and worries none about the words she doesn’t understand.  To her, language is play. She wants the silly situations, the wild characters, and the playful words we encounter. Ultimately, she wants “rhymes,” not poetry.

She’s not quite five, but she is more in tune with Sally Thomas than I have been for the last few years. I plan to remember both of their opinions the next time I head to the library to discover my next poet of obsession.

Thanks for reading.

_________________________________________