I was introduced to poetry in third, or maybe fourth grade, by Mr. Hyde back in Pistol River School. He gave all of us a general knowledge test. We all flunked poetry. Before we knew it, we were told to memorize Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog”:
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
I remember the poem to this day. I thought it was infernally stupid. I wasn’t sure why we were doing it: weren’t we dreamy enough? Plus, particulars of this poem stuck like a dry cracker in my throat. Did Sandburg say little cat feet? Silent cat feet? Quiet cat feet? Over harbor and city! I always forgot that line… If we didn’t nail it on the test, we failed. Plus, we lived in a part of the country where the fog did NOT move on, not for months at a time.
Our next memorization task was Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” We were in 4th grade, remember. Yet, before we knew it, we were all reciting “Whose woods these are, I think I know / His house is in the village though / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.” The cadence almost sounds like a horse clopping down a trail. There was a bit about Frost’s horse being queer, or at least that’s how we chose to interpret it. We thought that was hilarious. Frost’s poems made more sense to me than Sandburg’s poetic turd about Fog.
I still didn’t get poetry. I still saw no sense to it. Then, Mr. Hyde invited Elma Ismert, a distant cousin (she was married to my great-great grandpa’s brother). She was an old woman. She read her poems to the class: “Up on Sundown Mountain” and “Chittum Bark Tea.” They were generally 4-line stanzas with interlocking rhymes that held the poems together.
Now, her poems I understood. I’d been to Sundown Mountain. It was scarcely 3 miles away. She had grown up there; lived in Pistol River all her life. And everyone in the class knew what would happen if you drank chittum bark tea. You’d chit. And you’d chit some more, until you couldn’t chit no more. We laughed! Poetry was suddenly brought home to us, and made, just a little bit, fun.
Before you knew it I had written my own poem. I was probably 10 years old. I still remember the opening stanzas.
There’s Gerald Ford, and Hannibal Ford
Who tried out many a test
But I found out through research
That Henry Ford’s the best.
He was born in Michigan
In eighteen sixty three.
And 45 years later,
He came up with the model T.
The Model T’s an automobile
That ran like a gun.
And if you’d like to see one,
It’s in Dearborn, Michigan.
It droned on that way for another couple stanzas. I apparently had to do a paper on an American industrialist but in the meantime I had caught the muse.
A few weeks later, Mr. Hyde had re-invited Aunt Elma to the class, so I could read her my poem. And that was the end of poetry for me for a few years, while teachers drilled grammar, punctuation and sentence diagramming into our skulls.
A few years later, during Mr. Walker’s freshman English class, we were required to recite a poem in front of the class. I chose Robert Burns’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands.”
I remember my voice tremor, as my hands were shaking so hard. I could hardly hold the book as I read “My heart’s in the highlands, my heart is not here / My heart’s in the highlands a-chasing the deer.” You see, Robert Burns’s poetry affirmed to me that Aunt Elma’s poetry was the right kind. It felt the same as the choruses in the hymnbooks we sang. It felt familiar and homey.
Somewhere in all that, I overheard Mr. Walker telling someone that he enjoyed Walt Whitman in college, and that everything he had written sounded like Whitman for awhile. So I looked Whitman up. Didn’t get what the guy was doing, or why anyone would want to write like that.
I discovered E.E. Cummings around that time. Awhile ago, I mentioned this to a friend. He said that, of course, every teenage boy likes ee cummings first, and best. Cummings used punctuation and capitalization weirdly. He broke all the rules. His words were out of place. (“anyone lived in a pretty how town … he sang his didnt he danced his did”) He used them to color the page and move the eye around. I found a “complete works” in the library. I’m horrified to admit I read aloud to my sophomore English class the following poem by cummings: “Theys sO alive”. Here’s a bit of the poem. Look it up to read the rest, if you really want to know. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty racist, even for the 50s–cummings’s friends begged him to pull it from publication:
I experimented with quatrains, cinquains, haiku, sonnets and all the like. Free verse. Shaped poetry. I wrote 20 or 30 of the things during my Senior year, again with Mr. Walker. I have the poetry packet somewhere in my stuff. It’s crap. I remember that I chose the words of one, to make sure it came out in the shape of an oak tree. My friend Scott wrote the best poem of all of us, though (I roped him into my enjoyment of cummings a couple years earlier but he was always more mature than me).
A long time ago,
Under the eaves,
I picked up a hoe,
And hoed up some leaves.
I, on the other hand, wrote a poem about a guy who fell into a sewer.
I got better.
I’ve continued writing poems over the years. Usually, to clear my head, or to experiment with words. Sometimes because it’s a good way to begin a topic: I can overload something with words that way.
There are 9 or 10 poems I’ve written on this blog (most in the last 10 years or so). I’ve compiled them all in one place, if you want to look at them. I’ve also written about poems or poets more thana few times (Emily Dickinson, Jason Shinder, Seamus Heaney). One of my most popular (“Bethany Bill’s“) blog titles was taken (kind of) from an ee cummings poem. I’ve come a long way from the kid who hated Carl Sandburg. Many of my poems are about growing up in Pistol River. Thanks Aunt Elma. And also Mr. Walker. I get what you liked about Whitman now. It took a few years but I’m persuaded.