Category Archives: Poetry

Integrity vs. Loyalty

Sometimes, I worry that my children won’t learn enough.  Or, rather, that, as homeschooled children, they won’t learn enough of the “right” things.

Of biggest concern is my high schooler, Ethan.  He’s 14, and a freshman.  He’s currently doing Sonlight’s Core 200, which is actually SL’s sophomore year program.*  Since the bulk of the history portion of this program centers on Christian church history and apologetics, I’m unsure if I can actually count it as a history credit.  In addition to church history, he’s also reading some serious lit:  Jane Eyre, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, and Robinson Crusoe are all books he’s read this year.  Still, I sometimes wonder if we’re on the right track for him.

Then, some days, like today, I’m certain that — no matter if it is the “right” thing or not — there is SUCH VALUE in homeschooling.  We discuss topics that, in all likelihood, never reach the ears of a typically-schooled child.

The curriculum assigns readings from an anthology of poetry.  I have long held that poets are at least as interesting as their writings, and we’d be remiss to not become acquainted with each poet from the book.  This extra discussion makes the “poetry” section of his day take extra-long.  I don’t feel badly about this, but we’re just now finishing out week 16 of the poetry assignments, while the rest of his work is in week 30.

Anyway.

James Henry Leigh Hunt 1784-1859

Today had us read one of James Henry Leigh Hunt’s poems, Abou Ben Adhem.  The poem is all right;  not fabulous in my opinion.  The basic premise of it is that even if you don’t excel at loving God, it’s all right;  as long as you love others splendidly, God will bless (and ostensibly love) you the more for it.  That warrants discussion in itself.  However, we didn’t much discuss that.  What we did discuss was the nature of balancing integrity with loyalty.  Too much loyalty without integrity reaps a harvest of brown-nosing and spin-doctoring, sweeping sin issues under the rug.  Leigh Hunt, though, seems to have erred too much on the other side:  integrity over loyalty, which is rather ironic, given the topic of Abou Ben Adhem.  In other words, he was fond of speaking the truth, but not in love, not out of necessity, and often biting the hand that had fed and befriended him, publishing scathing critiques of his contemporaries’ works, and writing exposés of famous people of his day (leading, at one point, to a two-year jail sentence, for criticizing the Prince Regent)…  Unsurprisingly, he (and his wife and his ten children) frequently found themselves friendless and penniless…

Ideally, one would have family, friends, employers, et al, to whom one could be loyal, yet still retain one’s integrity.

I presented to Ethan the best example of both loyalty perfectly balanced with integrity that I know:  his father.  In our itinerant society, my husband has remained with the same employer for more than 20 years.  An integral part of our church (and on staff at said church) for nearly 23 years.  Married for 17+ years.  Each of those take commitment and loyalty.  Yet, he is also integrous to the nth degree, sometimes exasperatingly so, as he seeks to follow both the letter and the spirit of a law.  I was particularly pleased to show Ethan that one can excel at both integrity and loyalty.

It was definitely one of those learning experiences that I know Ethan wouldn’t have had elsewhere, and it made the whole day feel worthwhile.

—————-

*It’s not that Ethan is remarkably advanced;  it’s that we have already so extensively covered American History, which SL slates for freshmen, that I wanted him to learn something different.

On poetry and crazy poets.

I don’t do a whole lot one-on-one with my homeschooled 9th grader, Ethan.  But, we do do poetry together.  We’re reading through an anthology which is part of his curriculum.  However, the anthology has zero information on the poets, only the poems themselves.  I find that the study of poets is most often at least as interesting as the work they produced, and sometimes even more so!  Knowing an author’s history adds so much to the understanding of their work.  In general, I find that many times, poets walk — often unsuccessfully — a thin line between inspired and crazy.  William Blake, John Clare, even Emily Dickinson or perhaps even Walt Whitman…  Very, very interesting folk.  And even mentally sound poets like Lewis Carroll and Elizabeth Bishop and Lord Byron had fascinating, unique lives, most often lived on the very fringes of society.  It is worthwhile to consider such things, I think.

So, for each poet we’re about to read (as the anthology goes in alphabetical order, by author’s name), I do a little Google search and print out a little biography, usually only a half page or so…  and Ethan and I have thoughtful discussions about the nature of creativity and society and how sometimes our great strengths are also our weaknesses, and vice versa, and how even an apparently unsuccessful person (as defined by society) can create powerful works that are worthwhile and long-remembered.

On a related topic, with the younger boys, I read Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” this morning.  It took a couple of days to muster up the courage to read it;  t never fails to make me cry, and for a while there, I just didn’t feel like crying.  I think there are few more visceral, powerful, moving, beautiful poems ever written.   And it compels me to adore Abraham Lincoln all the more, for the deep love he inspired, devoting his life to the most worthy cause, and doing it well.  What a man, and what an honor.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
          But O heart! heart! heart!
          O the bleeding drops of red,
          Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                    Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
            Here Captain! dear father!
            This arm beneath your head;
            It is some dream that on the deck,
                   You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
           Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
           But I, with mournful tread,
           Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                 Fallen cold and dead.

 

Jane Austen on William Butler Yeats (sort of)

I must admit, I don’t recall reading any of Yeats until recently, when, in the course of Ethan’s schooling, over a week or so, we read through several of his poems together.  (Ethan is in 6th grade;  we homeschool.)  One of the many joys — for me — of homeschooling is that I get to learn all sorts of things that were lacking or inadequate or simply forgotten in my own education.  I discovered, reading with Ethan, that I love Yeats’ poetry, at least what I’ve read.  Not only do I just like his style, I feel like I completely get what Yeats is trying to say, and, feeling similarly myself, obtain even more of… a feeling of kinship (or something) with the author, and a greater appreciation for the poems themselves.

However, that isn’t necessarily a fantastic thing.

I was reminded of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  At one point, Anne, the heroine, meets a fairly minor character in the story, a Captain Benwick.  (This is all from memory, so please forgive me if I have some details skewed.)  At first, Anne is delighted with Benwick, because he so loves poetry, as does she.  It didn’t take too many conversations, though, for Anne to become alarmed about Benwick’s poetry “habit.”  See, Benwick was — very understandably — depressed because of the recent death of his fiance.  Anne’s concern was that, in his state, it wasn’t wise that Benwick was absolutely immersing himself in melancholy poetry.  Rather than the morose verse that was his particular taste, whereby he found sympathy and consolation, Anne encouraged him to at least also read some lighter fare — poetry that would lift his senses, rather than further depress them.

I felt the wisdom of Anne’s/Jane’s words as I read and re-read Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I have decided that there are a couple reasons why, for me, this is a particularly unwise poem on which to dwell:

  1. By nature, I could be a hermit.  Seriously.  There is definitely a loner-longing in my flesh that isn’t necessarily a good thing.  God has not called me to be a hermit — indeed, I wonder if hermitting is right for any Christian — so much of Christian life is about our participation in the Body of Christ, in the church, both as a worldwide whole, and in the local church.  We need to give, and we need to receive from others.  Not much giving or receiving going on in a handmade cabin on an isle by oneself.  This poem would certainly appeal to hermits.
  2. I need to bloom where I’m planted.  Even though I don’t adore the desert, I have discovered that it is important that I at least appreciate the desert, and not forever ache for green hills and trickling streams and tall trees, for the desert is where I am, where God has me, where my own dear husband loves.  Same with the city.  At heart, I don’t feel remotely like a city girl.  Yet, here I am, on the edges of a gigantic metropolis.  Resenting the city, resenting the desert is not a state of mind where I can allow myself to dwell.  Reading of Yeats continually hearing the lapping of the waters, deep in his heart, whilst on the grey pavement really illustrates exactly what I’m trying not to do. 

I shared all of this with Ethan — how I love the Innisfree poem, and why it isn’t the wisest thing for me to dwell on it, including Jane Austen’s thoughts on the subject.  Although I have greatly enjoyed all the discussions that poetry has brought up between my 11yo son and myself, I don’t know if that was the best thing to be dumping on him, either.  I think he was rather startled at the revelation that his mom has hermit tendencies.  But, it made me feel particularly warm that he totally understood my thoughts on the Body of Christ, and on blooming where one is planted.  He’s a good kid.  🙂

Laugh and the world laughs…

Is it just that today is Monday?  Is that why it went so horribly?  With my two younger boys, I spent the morning reminding, correcting, chastizing, pleading, cajoling, speaking sternly… then, finally, I dished out some spanks, which I don’t like to do anyways, and I certainly don’t like to do over school matters.  But, there was such great resistance from them… and this was after Wesley, last night, was telling me about how happy he was that tomorrow was school.  Ugh.

Then, it continued through lunch, and I finally sent the both of them (for different offenses) to a nap.  It was 1:30, and I told them that they are to stay in bed until they a) either really sleep, or b) until Dad comes home, which is usually between 6:00 and 6:30.  Too extreme?  Perhaps… but I was so wound up from the constant battle, which just makes me want to cry, because I don’t want to battle my children.  And, since I’d spent a good 6+ hours in conflict, I just wanted to tuck them away and not deal further with their obstinancy, or whatever it is.  And, I’m hoping that it’s an effectively deterrent discipline, to lie there for five hours, bored out of their gourds, in a dark room.

And then, I came out and thanked Ethan for his cooperation this morning.  He was fantastic.  Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that he, essentially, had a shortened day of work, since I spent excessive time with the two younger boys trying to get them to cooperate with anything.  Still.  I let him pick his own TV show (Firepower on the Military Channel) and gave him an Otter Pop, letting him know that his behavior was the only thing that was keeping me from despairing and bursting into tears.  No pressure, right?

I say that as a precursor to my real topic at hand, which was an absolutely fabulous conversation I had with Ethan this morning, one of those where I think, even while in the midst of conversing, “This is why we homeschool.”

I guess I want to present my day as realistically as possible…  I get discouraged, sometimes, from reading non-stop chipper posts from other homeschooling families who have ALL ah-ha moments, and the kids get along fabulously, and it’s oh-so-rewarding for everyone involved.  For me, it tends to be a balance of events that make me question my ability to mother, with events that make me want to cry for joy at their beauty and delight.

Anyways.

I am trying to FLY through the rest of Sonlight’s Core 3 with Ethan, which he/we have been working on since February of 2007.  Yet, we’re only on week 23?  24?  out of 36 in the curriculum, and that’s with me schooling a full 35 weeks per year, as required by the State of Arizona.  I think our slow progress is because I’m so intent on having my kids’ education so well-rounded that it’s just impossible to do a day’s worth of work in a day, when you fit Bible, Music, Latin, Typing and whatever else into the day, in addition to History, Reading, English and Math.  So, I told Ethan that we, at least for now, are not doing Latin, at least until we get Core 3 done.  And, actually, we’ve done three weeks’ worth of work in two weeks’ time, so that’s good.  Part of the reason I’m eager to get DONE with it is that, now that he’s in 6th grade, it’s getting harder to boost up the level of work in Core 3, which is, essentially, material appropriate for an advanced 3rd grader to 4th grader.  And, I’m eager to be done with American History, so we can get on to… well, Core 4, which is more American History, but then will be Core 5 which is all Eastern Hemisphere.   

All of that to explain why we, just today, got to this poem, Solitude, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it’s mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

It’s a famous poem, of course, and I told him that he was likely to hear the first two lines repeated several more times in his life by quoters who likely wouldn’t know the source;  they stand, famously, on their own.

The whole poem, though, led to a conversation about our nature vs. God’s nature; the natural vs. the supernatural; our response vs. God’s response…  We contrasted the truth of the poem with the admonishment by Paul to all believers in Romans 12:15:

Rejoice with those who rejoice [sharing others’ joy], and weep with those who weep [sharing others’ grief].

He totally got why such instructions would be necessary; that, without such instruction, we would continually be laughing with those who laugh, and ostracizing those who weep.

It was one of those conversations that made me brim with hopefulness for the maturity and Godliness of my 11yo son, and brim with thankfulness for our wise and loving God.  Plus, it just made me thankful, yet again, for the awesome anthology from which the poem came, and thankful to be homeschooling, so as to be a partaker, with my son, in such philosophizing.  🙂

~sigh~

Now, back to life, and returning my mother’s call.  I had avoided doing so when I was so bothered and grumpy about my boys’ behavior.  I need to tell her, yes, she and my stepdad should come over tonight for dinner…  I do love my mom:  she’s genuinely interested in all of our lives, genuinely loves my children, but other than a gentle reminder here or there, is never prying or bossy.  She’s a pleasure to be with.  And, yes, now that I think I’m fit company, I can tell her that our standing Monday evening dinner is on.  🙂

Protecting kids from poetry?

I’ve blogged a bit about poetry before, as my 10yo Ethan and I read through the lovely volume Classic Poetry:  An Illustrated Collection (which has apparently been recently re-published as The Walker Book of Classic Poetry and Poets).  It is a chronological collection, lushly illustrated by Paul Howard, who aptly captures the period and feeling of each poem by adapting his technique and style.  Although the book is specifically for children, it would be a valuable and beautiful addition to anyone’s library.  I have been impressed by the depth of poetry selected by editor Michael Rosen.

Today, though, on the schedule was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells.  As I prepared yesterday for school today, I glanced over the short verse, and found myself rather surprised by the chipper language of the poem, which evokes the peaceful, ideal imagery of a nighttime sleigh ride.  I decided to Google the poem, thinking maybe it was written early in Poe’s life, before things turned so morbid and dark for him.  It appears that it wasn’t. 

The truth is, the collection from which we are reading has only published the first verse of a four-verse poem.  The second verse is similarly optimistic, telling of wedding bells.  The third verse turns in a startled direction, focusing on alarm bells which call out the horror of fire, or other such danger to which one needs to be alerted.  The fourth verse finds Poe hitting his familiar chilling stride, writing of bells that portend “melancholy menace” of death.  He wraps up the poem reiterating how bells can be merry, warning, or “sobbing.”

Now, not every poem in this book is cheerful;  a number are despairing and death-filled.  Why, now, has the editor decided to protect the readers, the children, from the study of contrasts, where one medium can be used for many and diverse purposes, much like poetry itself?  Maybe its simply an issue of room in the book;  he wanted to include a couple by Poe, and most of Poe’s aren’t short, and many are completely inappropriate for little ones.  Maybe Rosen wanted a balance of happy poems and sad ones.  Maybe he’s trying to say, “See?  Poe’s not all morbid!”  Who knows. 

The whole thing has me deep in thought, though (as good poetry will!) about the balance I, too, seek to achieve:  protecting my children, but not too much.  I want to be a haven, I want our home and our family to be a haven, a place of peaceful contentment.  Yet, I don’t want them blinded to realities of sin, death and destruction, nor pretend, myself, that such things don’t exist.  As many things are, it’s an issue of careful parental discernment:  what, and how much, and when is this right for my child?

I don’t fault Rosen’s decision too much;  I’m just wondering why.        

Why I love Dorothy L. Sayers

Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum, and dregs of scattered thought,
Band of all evils; cradle of causeless care;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought:
Desire!  Desire!  I have too dearly bought
With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware.

~Sir Philip Sidney

Wow.  That, on the first page, introducing Chapter 1 of Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Sayers often puts some bit of verse, or some obscure quote at the start of each chapter of her books.  This one really spoke to me; it’s just where I’m at right now, warring with my flesh, attempting to place my very subjective desires under the objectivity of Christ-like life and thought.  Mangled mind, indeed.

I have no idea who Sir Philip Sidney is.  I probably should know, which brings up another thought I had, upon cracking this book — my 11th by Sayers this year (though a few books of short stories, she had published as individual works;  I read them in one large collection.):  I’ve read too much junk in my life.  I was an absolutely voracious reader as a child.  I most loved mysteries, and secondarily, historical fiction, horse stories, and fantasy.  Most of it, just fluff, especially the mysteries, which outnumbered all others at least 4 to 1:  Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators, Trixie Belden, Encyclopedia Brown…  Not bad, any of it.  But I do wish that my mom (or someone!) had given me just a little bit of direction to broaden my reading horizons, and to challenge me, at least a little bit.*  All that time spent reading, my life could have been immeasurably enriched, instead of just time passed almost compulsively reading just what appealed to my base nature.

The last 5+ years, it’s been my goal to read nothing that isn’t worthwhile.  “Worthwhile” of course, is a matter of personal judgement.  To me, Sue Grafton isn’t worthwhile, but Sayers is.  They probably fall in the same genre, detective fiction.  But they’re worlds — WORLDS! — apart.  Sayers’ works satisfy what seems to be a deep desire in me to solve mysteries, but also satisfies my longing to have my love for (worthwhile!) knowledge grow.  Almost any book that I’m reading where I have to keep a dictionary close at hand, to me, is worthwhile.  Almost any book that

  • stirs some… higher thought

  • sweeps some of the cobwebs from my brain

  • both challenges and confirms the reasons for my Christianity

  • has some profound beauty

  • is thoughtfully written

  • PLUS entertains

 is, IMO, worthwhile.

To me, silly girl that I am, the “entertainment” part is still important, especially when reading a novel.  I mean, I could pull off the shelf any academic, dry book of, say, comparative world religions and it would fit most of my “worthwhile” criteria.  But a novel still needs to entertain, to be absorbing. 

Another lovely thought from Ms. Sayers:

Tall spikes of delphinium against the grey, quiveringly blue like flames, if flame were ever so blue.  

______________

* That’s what I do with my boys, ages 10, 8, and almost-6.  They like when I pick out their library books, as I still almost always do.  I know they have a need for adventure, for pirates and war and the Wild West and survival and mysteries, too.  But, I try to give them a mix of fiction and non-fiction, of books that I know will be a breeze for them, and books that are maybe a little more challenging, which they wouldn’t have thought to pick for themselves, but which, ultimately, they’re glad they’ve read, once finished.  

My own must-read children’s picture books list

(Un)relaxed dad actually created a meme along these lines, and tagged me for it a while back.  I thought it was a splendid idea, but never did the meme.   Hopefully, this makes up for it.

Last week, I found three different lists of 100 must-read children’s books, but found them all somewhat unsatisfactory.  Part of the reason is that they were all too broad — from toddler books to young adult novels.  Below is my own list of greatly beloved children’s picture books. 

I’ve tried to analyze my list to find a connecting thread, and haven’t really found any consistent one.  I do love a compelling story, striking and detailed pictures, a bit of whimsy, and thoughtful, humorous, child-centered writing.  I did notice that a number of the books have somewhat of a prodigal, lost-and-found or wandering theme.  Hmmm….  Many of these books present a gentle moral without being preachy, and many of them picture loving families.  Also, in many of the books on my list, the protagonist must independently overcome some sort of mild peril. 

This list currently has 24 books, but, of course, I’ll probably add more as I think of them.  Other than the first — my all-time favorite — the books are in no particular order. 

  1. One Morning in Maine, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. 
    ~This is probably my favorite children’s book ever.  The single-color drawings are lovely, the dialogue believeably childlike.  Growing up as a girl in the desert, the idea of having to take a boat across the bay to go to the grocery store seemed like a fairytale.  I’m so pleased that my three boys have all loved this book, too.
  2.  Blueberries for Sal, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey.
    ~Close behind One Morning in Maine is this lost-and-found gem.  Make Way for Ducklings is surely McCloskey’s best-known work, but these first two are more deserving, in my opinion.
  3. Harry the Dirty Dog, written by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham
    ~A gentle lost-and-found prodigal story.
  4. Aesop for Children, illustrated by Milo Winter 
    ~Originally published in 1919, Winter’s illustrations are perfect.  And that Aesop guy was pretty bright!  😉  Even when I disagree with his conclusions, the little stories are perfect fodder for discussion.
  5. The Story about Ping, written by Marjorie Flack, illustrated by Kurt Wiese
    ~Compelling lost-and-found story which led us to investigate Chinese culture. 
  6. Richard Scarry anything
    ~All his books are simply classic, full of detail and humor
  7. Mark Teague anything
    ~Mark Teague is one of my favorite illustrators, and has written a number of books himself, as well.  His work is funny and fabulous.  If you’re not familiar with him, do yourself a favor and click the link.  We have read upwards of 20 books of his, and each is a delight. 
  8. John Muir, America’s First Environmentalist, written by Kathryn Lasky,  illustrated by Stan Fellows
    ~This is an absolutely perfect book — lushly detailed and colored illustrations, a compelling story, and non-fiction to boot!  It is a perfect readaloud, detailing Muir’s life from his boyhood in Scotland to his travels across the U.S., ending in the Sierra Nevadas. 
  9. Olivia,  written and illustrated by Ian Falconer
    ~Hilarious.  Wonderful pictures, too.  It’s the board book version that we’re familiar with.  We recently had to return this book to the library;  we’d had it for the maximum nine weeks, and had read it several times a day.  My 16mo daughter is mourning its loss, crying for, “Blee-bee-ah.”
  10. Magic Schoolbus series, written by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Bruce Degen
    ~Nicely detailed, funny blend of fantasy and non-fiction.
  11. Chester by Syd Hoff
    ~This is more an early reader than a picture book.  It’s my favorite of Syd Hoff’s many excellent children’s books.  I named my childhood dog after the title character of this story.
  12. Parts, written and illustrated by Tedd Arnold
    ~I’m boggled by those who think this book is too gross.  They obviously take themselves far too seriously and need to read MORE books like this to compensate for their lack of a childlike perspective.  This book is a hilarious tale of a boy who thinks he’s falling apart because he finds some lint in his bellybutton, something “gray and wet” from his nose, etc.  It’s a funny yet reassuring story, perfect for parents to read to their littles.
  13. Curious George by H.A. Rey
    ~The original, and still the best.  This classic could certainly not get published today;  as one Amazon reviewer chastises:  “The whole moral issue of the illegal animal trade is ignored. Parents will also probably not appreciate episodes in which George smokes a pipe and engages in other unhealthy or foolish activities.”  This wonderful book ignores reality — which many of the best children’s books do — and revels in the absurd.
  14. Elephants & Emus, collected and illustrated by Philippa-Alys Browne 
    ~This short anthology of rhyming verse is accompanied by Browne’s vibrant and slightly stylized watercolors.  Wondrous.
  15. Katy and the Big Snow, written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton
    ~This is Burton’s classic tale of perseverance, with an engaging story and detailed drawings.  The middle of the book features a map of the town, where the child can match each of the town’s buildings to its spot on the map.  (I’m a sucker for maps.) 
  16. Cowboy Baby, written and illustrated by Sue Heap
    ~WHY is this book out of print???  Fantastic, colorful illustrations, whimsical, gentle story of a little boy who doesn’t want to go to bed.
  17. We Were Tired of Living in a House, written by Liesel Moak Skorpen, illustrated by Joe Cepeda
    ~Brightly and imaginatively illustrated book that, at its heart, proclaims, “There’s no place like home!”  It appeals to the adventurous, as it follows four children who go exploring as their parents are distracted by painting their house.  This is one of those books whose illustrations have their own story going, apart from the text.  I LOVE it when illustrators give careful thought to their pictures; it can add immensely to the appeal of a book.  I recently learned that this was originally published with illustrations by Doris Burn (See Andrew Henry’s Meadow, below).
  18. The Tortoise and the Jackrabbit, written by Susan Lowell, illustrated by Jim Harris
    ~Richly illustrated retelling of the Aesop fable, set in the Sonoran Desert.  The fun and lovely pictures are full of actual native flora and fauna.
  19. Cowpokes, written by Caroline Stutson, illustrated by Daniel San Souci
    ~Cowpokes features simple, rhyming text, and lovely, colorful illustrations with native desert flora & fauna.  There are “games” we discovered in the book, too, such as hidden animals amongst the cliffs, and locating the groundhog on every page.
  20. Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland written and illustrated by Tomie de Paola
    ~I’m not really a huge fan of de Paola, nor am I Catholic.  But this stirring historical account of the life of St. Patrick is well-worth a read, and another read, and another…
  21. Have You Seen My Duckling? by Nancy Tafuri
    ~This sweet, almost wordless book, tells the tale of a duckling who becomes separated from his family while pursuing a butterfly.  Young children will have fun finding him hiding among the pages, and rooting for the mother and the duckling’s siblings to bring him safely back to the nest.
  22. How I Became a Pirate, written by Melinda Long, illustrated by David Shannon
    ~This engaging, colorfully detailed book tells the story of a boy who joins up with a group of pirates, thinking that his parents wouldn’t mind “as long as I got back in time for soccer practice the next day.”  It, again, is a “no place like home” story, imaginatively illustrated by David Shannon, who is perhaps best known for his slightly irreverent David series which feature childlike drawings.
  23. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, written by Laura Joffe Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond
    ~This book is on many a best-of list, for good reason.  It’s attractively illustrated, imaginative, and based on the “logic” of children (and mice).
  24. Andrew Henry’s Meadow, written and illustrated by Doris Burn
    ~My friend John gave this book to my boys a number of years ago, and it’s since been a perennial favorite.  The story follows the young inventor Andrew while he basically builds his own reality.  As John wrote in Doris Burn’s Wikipedia entry, “Her distinctive style consists of absorbingly detailed line drawings, often of children matter-of-factly doing extraordinary things.”  Interestingly, this book is currently in production to become a movie headed by Zach Braff, slated for a 2008 release.

It took me a few days of working to compile this list and find the appropriate pics and links.  If anyone is up for the challenge of putting up your own list — with or without pics & links, etc. — I’d love to see it.

Clock-a-Clay, John Clare, more unrhyming rhyme, and being too content

First, let me say that there’s nothing that helps me understand poetry more, than working through it with my kids.  I’m the kind of person who really doesn’t listen to the words in music, content with the rhythm, the instrumentation, the hook, and the occasional phrase that clings.  I tend not to look for the “meaning” — either overt or hidden, in either music or poetry.  However, my kids are all about meaning.  They’re not big on art for art’s sake.

When we read a poem (currently, we’re working through this lovely volume), I read it through once, then I read it slowly again, stopping to explain any odd words or phrases, asking them what they think such-and-such line means, or what the poem itself is trying to express.  We talk about the feeling of a poem, how highly structured (or not) it is.  We count out syllables.  We generally deconstruct it.  Then, I usually read through it once more, having them keep their bodies still and eyes closed, so they (we!) can fully appreciate the beauty of the poem combined with our greater knowledge of it.

That has led me to ponder on the idea that, I think that, previously, I’ve been content with too little in poetry.  I mean, in all of my history, I’ve read poetry in a simply face-value way… enjoying some, tossing off others.  But, in investigating a poem (and the poet him/herself) lends greater appreciation for it.  It’s rather like my current drive to identify flowers and birds:  Knowing something more in-depth gives me more pleasure in that thing.

Today’s poem was John Clare’s lovely Clock-a-Clay.  Among other things, we had to find out that a “clock-a-clay” (or clock o’ clay) is a ladybug (ladybird beetle).  And, though I figured out that the cowslips mentioned are flowers, we were not familiar with what they looked like.

   

And… similar to Blake’s Tyger, Clare gives a hint to what language sounded like in early 19th century Northamptonshire, England, rhyming these two lines:

Bending at the wild wind’s breath,
Till I touch the grass beneath;

 Clare’s life was, by and large, sad.  He never quite fit in anywhere he was, being too erudite for the farm-folk, and too rustic for the citified.  He became delusional, and spent the latter 2/5 of his life in a mental institution.  My personal take on this is that his unstable mental state was brought about by general discontentedness combined with a “taste for ale,” as he euphemistically called his alcoholism, which seems all the more tragic to me, since he had seven children.  It’s always startling to me how profound loveliness can come out of such messed-up circumstances. 

Which, of course, leads me to appreciate his poetry even more.

  

“The Tyger” and thoughts on poetry

I was thinking of this poem yesterday, as I was doing laundry.  Doing laundry is a good time to reflect, IMO.

Poetry inspires in me all kinds of hopes and fears and joys.  I decided that delving into poetry is a lot like enjoying wine.  The experts tell you to just drink what you like, like there is no right or wrong.  However, there also exists the world of wine full of sommeliers who tell you that it’s not “Willamette Valley,” it’s “Wull-AH-m’t Valley” when one is trying to find a wine one likes in the hoity-toity food store…  IOW, even though the knowledgeable ones will insist on simply drinking what you like, it turns out that there really is a right way and a wrong way in which to enjoy wine, and the World of All Things Wine can be quite an inhospitable place.

But for those who understand the ways of wine, and who take the time to educate themselves, the World of Wine can be quite rewarding and enjoyable.  So it is with poetry.

I hardly deem myself knowledgeable about poetry (or wine, as evidenced by the steward’s gentle — but needed, apparently — correction).  However, I have tasted a few of its joys, and I wish to know more.

I fully remember being six years old, and in Mrs. Gibson’s first grade classroom, and opening my literature textbook (which, incidentally, I think are largely travesties — go read the whole book, silly, not just an excerpt!!) to discover Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing.” It took my breath away.  I was agog that someone could so adeptly capture the rapture of swinging.  To this day, I remember the picture that accompanied the text.

I have had little love affairs with other poets:  Rumi, Kahlil Gibran and Marina Tsvetayeva, most notably.  And, I write poetry, but not nearly so much as when I was younger.

Yet, the education I received was largely unappreciative of poetry, and I can say with certainty that I, unless I look it up on Wikipedia, have no idea what iambic pentameter is.  I’m surprised that I actually know what a couplet is.

I love language.  I love that I was born into a family of English-speakers.  So difficult and rich and complex, history-laden, and derivative language that it is.  There’s always more to learn when it comes to the English language.  I love how poetry can evoke the most powerful and wistful emotions in, often, just a few words.

However, I’m so obtuse.  I’m so broad.  I am slow to pick up inference (or never do).  I don’t get the hints and the things alluded to so often in poetry.  I, unless I make effort not to, read things at face value, which means I often miss what the author intended, sometimes aware that I’m not “getting” it, and sometimes blissfully ignorant, not knowing that I should be embarrassed about my stupidity.

Poetry can do that:  it can make me feel stupid and lacking in depth.  Or emotion.  Or something else unknown to me.

All that said, I still cautiously pursue poetry.  When schooling my boys, when we read poetry, we don’t just fly through it once and tick off the box:  “Done!”  I generally read it once, then we discuss any unknown words, or what the author might have meant by such-and-such.  We discuss the rhyming pattern, if any.  We sometimes clap out the syllables to see if the author holds himself/herself to a certain rythm.  I might have one or the other boy read it… then, armed with all our investigative knowledge, I have them close their eyes and relax, and I read one last time.  I’m thrilled when my boys, through my limited-knowledge-instruction “get” it.  My heart leaps when they beg, “One more!  One more!!”

The current book of poetry that we’re reading through is Classic Poetry, An Illustrated Collection, selected by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Paul Howard, whose drawings evoke the era and emotion of each poem.  The book is put out by Candlewick Press, which seems to have a special place in its heart for all things lovely and artful.  The pictures are beautiful, and there’s a short biography of each poet.  It’s really a well-done book, directed at children, but worthwhile for anyone, really.

We came upon the poem illustrated above (though that pic is from Wikipedia) by William Blake, called “The Tyger.”  (Honestly, I was introduced to William Blake by one of my quirky no-one’s-ever-heard-of-’em bands, Daniel Amos/DA in this lovely song by musical genius Terry Scott Taylor.)  Since we recently read through A Child’s Garden of Verses by Stevenson, we had discussed how an author’s accent can cause words to rhyme that, according to our Arizona pronunciation, don’t rhyme at all.

So!  To (part of) the original point of this post — Blake has rhyming couplets in this whole poem.  Yet, he ends the first and last stanzas with “eye” and “symmetry.”  Blake wrote in the late-18th and early 19th centuries.  Back then, and with an English accent, did those two words rhyme?  We read it both ways:  “symme-TRY” and “symme-TREE.”  The first sounded funny/odd/senseless, and the second did not flow.  We know that not all poems have to rhyme, but when a poem is written in otherwise obvious couplets (bright/night, art/heart, spears/tears), it’s apparent that, somehow, it’s supposed to rhyme.  In all other ways, it’s such a powerful and beautiful poem.  We also discussed the idea that, back then, there was no photography, no video.  It would have been a rare and spellbound person who actually saw a tiger.  We are so satiated with images that even the tiger, readily seen at zoos, holds not the mystery that it did for William Blake.  He was completely unjaded, unabashedly awed.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry!?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes!
On what wings did he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?
What the hammer? What the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears:
Did he smile, his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

All food for thought.  Or, drink for thought.  Marina Tsvetaeva agrees with me, likening her poems to wine:

Scattered in bookstores, greyed by dust and time,
Unseen, unsought, unopened, and unsold,
My poems will be savoured as are rarest wines –
When they are old.
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