Archive for Sunday, October 7, 2001

s a poem for every occasion

October 7, 2001


Each semester when I taught my students about the press and the American Revolution I recited a bit of Emerson's "Concord Hymn": "By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April's breeze unfurled." Then I treated the poor little devils to "Listen, my children, and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere." Somewhere along the line I gave them "Ay, tear her tattered ensign down, long has it waved on high." When we saw Old Ironsides in Boston Harbor my daughters had to hear me recite that one.

I do love the old ones. I love a lot of Walt Whitman, but "O Captain, My Captain" takes me back 70-some years to a classroom on Lincoln's birthday. "Blessings on thee, little man, barefoot boy with cheek of tan" somehow seems to be about my barefoot boyhood. "Merrily swinging on briar and weed, near to the nest of his little dame" is the Bryant poem I like best, even with the "spink, spank, spink" stuff.

When did I encounter "The Highwayman"? That's a great one, and when the wind is blowing hard and the moon is shining I go outside and come back and recite to my wife, for the hundredth time, "The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas." Many of us, of course, like to say "Quoth the raven, nevermore." I thought about that the other day when Baltimore beat Denver.

In grade school we memorized "Abou ben Adhem, may his tribe increase." Have I told you about the girl who got 100 percent on one of my exams and I wrote on her paper, "And behold, her name led all the rest"? She asked what I meant and I almost dropped her grade to a "C." We also read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and my sister memorized the entire thing and insisted on offering it aloud in class.

I'd almost forgotten "Gunga Din" until I read Franklin P. Adams' Stars and Stripes satire, "You may talk of vin and biere, when you're quartered over there, in New York, or Abilene, or Sleepy Hollow." One of my friends introduced me to A. E. Housman's "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now, is hung with bloom along the bow." This has become a favorite.

When we went to Wordsworth country in England we just had to drive down to the very lake where the poet was inspired to write "I wandered lonely as a cloud," his poem about the daffodils. Has there been a spring when I haven't recited those lines to someone?

In college I took a class called Browning, and our professor acted out the poems. I still see him galloping around the classroom to "I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris and he; I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three." Yes, they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix. Years ago I acquired a McGuffey's Fifth Reader and found a poem I loved as a boy, "The Cataract." "Collecting, projecting, receding and speeding, and shocking and rocking, and darting and parting." That's how the water came down to Ladore.

There's that poignant one that I remember from "The Man Without a Country": "Breathes there the man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, this is my own, my native land." Or "The breaking waves dashed high, on a stern and rock-bound coast." The Plymouth Rock area looked pretty placid to me.

And my No. 1 favorite, "The Cremation of Sam McGee." And "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day." Grand old poems. I refuse to yield them to poetry of this new day.

-- Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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