My father said, “I don’t like poetry.” But he recited whole stretches of Shakespeare and odd fragments he learned at school. They shaped his thought and ferried it forward until he died, more than threescore years after his schooling ended. And Dad loved song, singing sea shanties to us through the hours of boat trips and long drives in the country. Dad imagined song was not verse and persuaded himself he ‘didn’t like poems.’
Many feel the same: confronted with verse they shrink and expect to be baffled by this often complex, always dense mode of expression.
Some poems however are quite straightforward. In First Class at Leeton Public School, Mrs Paulette announced, “Today we will learn a new poem. It is ‘Ding, Dong, Dell.'” I raised my hand: “I know that poem already.”
“Good, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”
“Ding, dong dell,
Pussy’s in the well:
How can you tell?
Go and have a smell.”
“Howard, leave the class immediately.”
Whether in the original version, that features Little Tommy Thin as the malefactor, or in the Howard version in which putrefaction proceeds, the lines race along in straight lines from straightforward beginning to clear ending. The charm is in the music and in the energy-packed compactness. Next to a picture and a graph, a poem is often the most efficient mode of conveying experience.
If you are like me, you might be daunted by lengthy poems. Try this one, a shorty:
I, Too, Sing America
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
I know too little of American verse, but the phrase, ‘I sing America’ rings a bell. I think it was Walt Whitman who wrote a poem by that title. Here the poet claims American folk memory – together with Emily Dickenson, Whitman is said to be the most original of American poets – and with graceful economy and marvellous power, protests against his exclusion to the kitchen of America, ‘when company comes.’
If you like that, try the even shorter, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
I found both poems in ‘The Great Modern Poets’, edited by Michael Schmidt (Quercus). The CD enclosed inside the front cover features all the poets – from Yeats T S Eliot to Plath – reading their own work. Langston Hughes sings his lines with a jazz rhythm and in an accent faintly redolent of the Caribbean. Buy the book, listen to the CD and weep for beauty.