W. D. Snodgrass: First Loves
I have to confess that my first loves in poetry were outmoded and half-forgotten things that our teachers read aloud. I went to grade school in a small, industrial city (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania) with a large immigrant population: Italian, Polish, Greek, Hungarian and Romanian. This made for a somewhat rough-and-tumble atmosphere. But we had some splendid teachers. One of our English teachers was a tough old bird who really did teach us grammar; now and then, though, she'd get tired and take a class period to read us poems--with obvious joy and energy. The only title I remember is "The Raggedy Man," by James Whitcomb Riley. I suspect that most of the poems were equally sentimental and outside any standards I'd care to own now. But she became simply rapturous and we got swept away--even, though they might not have admitted it, some of the toughest kids.
The first poem I remember loving outside school was "The Marshes of Glynn" by Sidney Lanier, which I may have first heard on some radio program lamenting his death in the Civil War. I hunted up the poem and memorized the first stanza; astoundingly, I can still recite it. Recently, I stumbled upon a copy and was equally surprised to find that I still admire the opening and find the rest overdone--the music takes over and kills all sense. That's much what I've found with his theories about music and poetry--he's onto something magical but rides it to death. Still, it confirms my suspicion that what counts is to hear a poem read out loud by someone who loves it.
Later, in high school, I had another English and home room teacher who directed the school's plays. Handsome and a little bit earthy, she played alpha dog to a wild pack of rowdies and pranksters: the stage crew. She took no nonsense--cuffed them around if necessary. Everyone admired and some adored her. She read aloud, taught us Shakespeare, and made us read aloud or act out whole scenes in class. This could get down and dirty and was almost always lively.
Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 1998.
More First Loves
W. S. Merwin: First Loves
One great stroke of luck for me, as I came to realize much later, was growing up hearing poetry read aloud from the Bible after breakfast—my parents reading to us, that is, before my sister or I had learned to read. The practice never developed much momentum, and it tailed off like the keeping of most journals, but it left in my ear the sound of my mother's voice (I knew my father's from church) reading psalms. The voice was the same that she used for everything but it was refracted by this remote, resonant, lingering language. I loved that more than I knew at first.