Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Magic Of Poetry

A Pandora's box of poetry

If The Story Of Mankind introduced me to history, and if As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning revealed the delights of long distance walking, then Louis Untermeyer's Golden Treasury opened up a magical world of poetry. I found this book in my stocking one Christmas and was immediately entranced. Although my parents used to lull me to sleep at night with stories and poems, although I was used to seeing poetry books around the house — Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden Of Verses, AA Milne's When We Were Very Young, John Betjemen's Collected Poems — it was this book which really stirred my imagination, awakening a love of words and rhyme and rhythm and illustration which has continued to the present day. Who could not possibly be charmed by this lovable doggy poem by Ogden Nash?

Doggy poems: click to enlarge

Or fail to be moved by Elizabeth Bishop's fish with "his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper" and by the boat's engine oil spreading out "until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow"?

Fish poem: click to enlarge

Or startled by Emily Dickinson's original and lovely way of seeing?

I'll tell you how the sun rose —
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
"That must have been the sun!"

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

And this description of fog by Carl Sandburg is pure perfection:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking

over harbour and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Endpapers illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund


  1. I'm a bit out of love with poetry at the moment! Enjoying some novels (and music) though so not completely lost...

  2. Great to see these books from your childhood. Startling to see Elizabeth Bishop's poem about the fish. I'm not sure why, but I wasn't aware of Elizabeth Bishop until the 1990s.

    I am enchanted by the illustrations, including those on the endpapers. Seeing illustrations like those I saw as a child makes me realize how carefully I looked at illustrations and how real the world they portrayed was to me.

  3. For me life without poetry is unthinkable. I don't remember when I started to read poems rather than children's verse, perhaps only in my very early teens, but I've never stopped and now poetry is a wholly natural part of every day.

  4. You have picked out some timeless beauties, to be sure. The earliest poem that grabbed me and wouldn't let go I've not found again, to my dismay. It had something to do with a woman who ate nothing but pickles and tea, and finally (as I recall it) became so thin and light that she flew out a window. Another that I loved and still do was Jabberwocky. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! are still, for me, unrivaled as words of celebration.

  5. Given your country's great literary history, it is a bit of a surprise to learn that it was American poetry that first stirred and awakened your lifelong interest in poetry. It's nice to be reminded of the fact that we have exported something more important than war and snack foods. I also enjoyed reading these poems again, especially the Emily Dickinson. I've always loved that line about the sun rising "a ribbon at a time."

  6. I'm surprised to see Bishop's fish poem too (my favorite ever, I think; my barn cat Bishop is named for her, did you know?). I like the ribbons shared between the fish and ED's sun. My husband helps his 4th grade students memorize several poems each year, including Sandberg's Fog. They also learn Frost's "Stopping By A Woods On A Snowy Evening" and then later on in 8th grade they sing it in the winter concert with classmates from other schools. They're the only ones who know it already.

  7. Rachel, I go in and out of love all the time ... and lostness is good anyhow ...

    am — Elizabeth Bishop is amazing!

    Friko, indeed, same here ... I love Lewis Carroll.

    Would sure like to trace that pickles and tea poem, Susan ...

    George! Yes, I've only just realised that all my quotations were from American poets!

    And Ruth ... Bishop is so sublimely specific, isn't she? Wonderful. Just traced one of your 2010 Bishop posts I hadn't read before ...

    1. I know the Pickles and Tea poem. Has anyone gotten back to you on that one yet? If not, it's funny because I see the book referenced above. I'm pretty sure it is A.A. Milne from the book "When We Were Very Young"

  8. Meant "I love Lewis Carroll, Susan', but I'm sure you all worked that out ...