Monday, August 3, 2009

Surprised by... Poetry? What's Up with THAT??

Picture of my father, of gentle eyes, who loves the rain...and me

Even though I love to read, cook, listen to music and other artsy-joyful things, about the last thing on my list of Fun Ways to Wile Away the Hours would be: Read a Book of Poetry.

But on our road trip yesterday from Eugene to Reno by way of Crater Lake, by way of getting lost, by way of avoiding a forest fire.... I had 10 hours and one 400 page book of poems at my disposal. I picked up the book at an antique store in a seaside town when I opened it randomly, and read a couple of short poems that actually brought a smile to my face and lump to my throat at the same time. I call this the Bambi Effect. When a movie or book gives you that "smiling through tears" emotion, such as Walt Disney's "Bambi" ... it is usually an indication that you've stumbled upon something magical. A treat for your soul. So I plopped down the 5 bucks for it in a "why not?" moment.

The collection, originally published in 1941 (I got the 27th printing, at 300,000 copies sold) was put together by a radio broadcaster, apparently well known in his hey day named A.L. Alexander. I'd never heard of him but he was, it seems, a bit like the inspirational storyteller Paul Harvey. At the end of his show, he would read a poem and his listeners loved these. So he gathered them together in a book and titled it simply, Poems That Touch the Heart. Though there were a few overly sentimental sing-song verses; I found so many that I wanted to read again, and again. Most were short, perhaps that helped. Each poem seemed to immediately create an instant mental picture of someone I loved, or someone I'd lost or something I'd felt but had not put in words. The depth of emotion surprised me.

"Feel free to read me one aloud," Greg said as he drove. And I said, "I want to, but I can't. I'll cry. I'm already swallowing lumps in my throat while I read them silently." Hours later, I'd finished the entire book.

So, I opened it and began again.

At this point, I braved trying to read one aloud, and could not get past the first line without my voice cracking and tears in my eyes.

But it wasn't a sad kind of tears. It wasn't exactly tears of joys either. It was the tears that come from a place of deep emotion. Sometimes these tears come when I sing in church and I have to stop singing and think of a hamburger or a gerbil or something totally void of emotion, because my mascara will be run down my face and I don't want to frighten other parishioners.

I had no clue that poetry could do this to me, too. Maybe I'm finally old enough to understand them. Perhaps poetry requires having lived a little, loved deeply, lost something precious.

When I taught first grade (I'm a retired teacher, having "retired after 9 months of faithful service")I used to love teaching the kids a short poem every week. We started out with "Keep a poem in your pocket and a picture in your head...and you'll never be alone at night when you're in bed..." That little verse returned to me as I read my big book on the road.

Below is one short poem from the book that grabbed my heart and put an immediate picture in my head. A bit of background: My father, the worlds kindest and most tender Daddy, with soft eyes and a gentle heart used to love to listen to rain on the roof. I remember one cool autumn afternoon when it began to rain and he took me up to the attic so both of us could hear the pitter-patter drumming even better.

Who Loves the Rain

Who loves the rain
And loves his home,
and looks on life with quiet eyes,
Him will I follow through the storm;
And at his hearth-fire keep me warm;
Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise,
Who loves the rain,
and loves his home,
And looks on life with quiet eyes.

Frances Wills Shaw, 1917

Even as I was copying this poem down, I remember how much my Dad used to love the poetry of Robert Frost and now and again, he'd read one to me from his favorite overstuffed chair from his "reading nook." How had I forgotten this little memory?

Anyway, I may post a poem or two now and again from this old book I've newly come to love. Maybe there's some real wisdom -- a newfound joy -- in keeping a poem in your pocket and picture your head.


  1. Somewhere amongst my crowded shelves is a copy of this very book, dog-eared and yellowed from years of use by both myself and my grandfather. It truly is a treasure. And that sort of not-tears-not-joy writing is what every author should aspire to.

  2. That is so cool, Billy. I just bought a couple of old copies for my kids from Amazon to pass along the joy...