Growing Up With Poetry
Islands and peninsulas, continents and capes,
Dromedaries, cassowaries, elephants and apes,
Rivers, lakes and waterfalls, whirlpools and the sea,
Valley-beds and mountain-tops - - are all Geography!
The capitals of Europe with so many curious names,
The North Pole and the South Pole and Vesuvius in flames,
Rice-fields, ice-fields, cotton-fields, fields of maize and tea,
The Equator and the Hemispheres - - are all Geography!
The very streets I live in, and the meadows where I play,
Are just as much Geography as countries far away,
Where yellow girls and coffee boys are learning about me
One little white-skinned stranger who is in Geography!
As a fourth-grader in the New York City public schools, this poem is how I learned about geography. The year was 1963, and my schoolmarmish teacher, Miss Vera Fastenberg, required us all to memorize and recite it. While I hadn't much trouble with the memorization because I had become accustomed to it with my own family, I did have to look up such exotic creatures as dromedaries and cassowaries; I already knew about elephants and apes.
Forty years later, I still remember this poem and roughly 100 others that the New York City curriculum—not just Ms. Fastenberg—required us to memorize. To this day, I can even recite a line I learned in first grade. Our class had memorized Edward Lear’s Owl and the Pussy Cat, and my line in our playlet was, “So they took it away and were married next day by the turkey who lived on the hill.”
I loved the way Farjeon’s and Lear’s words rolled off my tongue. And I relished the vivid images their rhymes created in my head. These poems have not only enriched my personal life but have come in handy in my professional life, as well. I’m an educational guide and tour designer. Based in Alexandria, Va., I give roughly 22 tours to about a thousand students each year. I take them on visits to Washington, D.C., monuments as well as historical sites up and down the east coast. But I don’t just tell students why a particular memorial is important or give them the CliffNotes version of a historical event. I make statues and stone come alive with poetry. And as teachers see how enthusiastically their students react, I encourage teachers to incorporate poetry into their field trips and classes.
My family background is best summed up by Elias Lieberman’s poem, I am an American. I was brought up in both urban Jewish and Christian rural environments and was blessed by parents who loved literature. Family members, from both sides, read poetry to me as soon as I uttered my first words. Three of my most prized books were, and still are, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six (both by A.A. Milne) as well as an anthology of over 700 poems, Favorite Poems Old and New, edited by Helen Farris. Prayers and psalms from the Bible, followed by the dramatic passages and sonnets of Shakespeare augmented my repertoire, all before eighth grade.
Memorization was an acquired skill employed by my family members for diversion as well as discipline. The older generation had neither radio nor television growing up, and going to a movie was a rare treat. Recitation and music were the acceptable outlets; reading was required for both. I was required at times to recite poems for the enjoyment of my family. Once, when I forgot a line, my father chided me that young Winston Churchill (who was nearly at the bottom of his class at Harrow) could recite over 1,200 lines of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. (I imagined that they were short lines, but have since found out otherwise.) Elderly members of my father's family in the Northern Neck of Virginia could conceivably have matched Sir Winston Churchill; they constantly regaled us with John Henry and other long folk poems and songs. My late cousin, Harvey Bailey, was particularly entertaining and could, at the drop of a hat, recite something that he had learned nearly 95 years ago, when he was a young whippersnapper.
In the summer of 1969, I tried writing poems of my own. That time was particularly magical for me. It’s when I first started to understand and write love poetry, for it was the year of my first boyfriend. It was also the summer of Apollo 11. My family was glued to the television watching the Apollo 11 mission and mesmerized by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Talk about poetry!
When the astronauts eventually rested, Dad opined that in any other century such a momentous occasion would be marked and celebrated in poetry and song. He lamented whether anyone nowadays would see the poetry in it. Eager to please my father, I rushed upstairs to write something to capture the moment, which has become a family joke:
O! Fain that I would see the day
The moon does not belong to lovers!
Stripped of the lies and myths of past
They of the moon that were truth’s covers.
And three were on that awesome flight
‘Twas such a very brave endeavor
Scientists were victorious;
Now lovers croon about the weather!
Despite this inauspicious beginning, my poetic attempts were not confined to home. I eventually became the literary editor of my high school’s literary arts magazine. While one of my poems included in that publication was given a ‘rave review’ in the school newspaper, another was panned. I persevered, however, and still write a few lines when the spirit moves me.
As an educational tour designer, I suggest specific poems that complement venues and curricula to both teachers and tour guides. Peregrine White and Virginia Dare, a poem by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét about “the first real Americans” that I memorized as a teenager before visiting Jamestown, has a place on the tour, as does the now iconic line from Apollo 11, especially when I’m at the National Museum of Air and Space. There are several other places during a tour of Washington and Virginia where one could inject a poem or two. Mount Vernon is a spectacular backdrop for the Benéts’, George Washington. The Benéts also composed a poem that helps me introduce President Lincoln and his massive memorial; it’s called Nancy Hanks:
If Nancy Hanks
Came back as a ghost,
Of what she loved most,
She'd ask first
"Where's my son?
What's happened to Abe?
What's he done?"
"Poor little Abe,
Left all alone.
Except for Tom,
Who's a rolling stone;
He was only nine,
The year I died.
I remember still
How hard he cried."
In a little shack,
With hardly a shirt
To cover his back,
And a prairie wind
To blow him down,
Or pinching times
If he went to town."
"You wouldn't know
About my son?
Did he grow tall?
Did he have fun?
Did he learn to read?
Did he get to town?
Do you know his name?
Did he get on?"
These are relatively simple poems that I learned in fourth grade. I have parts of them written on index cards that I distribute amongst my students to read aloud together. After that, they share their thoughts on how different choices could have changed George
Washington’s life or how they would reply to the questions posed by Lincoln’s mother. Carl Sandburg's, Washington Monument by Night, is another poem that my students love; it can be adapted as a sort of a choral piece. I even suggest they compose a poem describing their impressions of another monument or memorial in D.C.
During our three-hour walks through Arlington National Cemetery, out come more index cards so that the students can recite lines from Bivouac of the Dead by Theodore O’Hara, In Flanders Field by Lt. Col. John McCrae, and High Flight by Pilot Officer Gillespie McGee. This last poem is chiseled into the back of the Challenger Memorial and seeing it touches the students as they learn that the author was killed just days after we entered World War II. (High Flight would also be suitable for the new Air Force Memorial adjacent to the Pentagon.) These poems set the tenor for a solemn visit, as does Hello David by Nurse Dusty at the Nurses’ Memorial, which is part of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.
It's sad that so many of the eighth-graders I have conducted on tour have no knowledge of the Benets. They've never read anything by Carl Sandburg, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Alfred Noyes, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, or Edward Lear.
Children are hungry for poetry because poetry expresses inner thoughts and creates indelible images; it might be their first exposure to beauty. It makes them examine themselves as well as use their imagination. Concepts that are philosophical, theological, allegorical, and emotional are all explored and encapsulated in poetry. Poetry aids in personal growth. Ask a child to write a poem, and you will get a revelation about him or her.
Last autumn, as I was bringing a group down the forested mountain at Monticello, I jumped up on a bench to improve my view of the stragglers while holding onto the tree for support. One of the students asked if I were a, “tree hugger”? In fact, I literally was. I told the group that I loved trees, especially in autumn. To keep their attention, I started to wax lyrical and recite a couple of poems by Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost as well as Joyce Kilmer's, Trees. Quoting Kilmer, I told them, “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.” It was their first time hearing these poems, which I had assumed were already part of their cultural literacy and curriculum.
When the whole group was finally gathered, one of the students asked me to recite another poem. I thought Geography would be perfect. The students applauded after I finished. One young man thought that it was a hard poem and must have taken me a long time to memorize. (He probably wondered how I was still capable of remembering it at my advanced age!) They were all stunned when I revealed that I had learned it in fourth grade and it took less than a week.
“That's nothing, would you like to hear me recite the poem for which I received extra credit when I was in fourth grade? It's called, The Highwayman!" For the next five days I recited poetry and taught them folk songs. Goober Peas was the number one crowd pleaser. Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me? was also well-received.
On these trips, my audience often includes teachers and administrators. They, too, appreciate the verses I recite. And they recognize that poetry and song are equal partners with history and civics.
Sometimes I just have to remind them.