I was always the kid in English class who looked forward to the poetry section. Fully understanding that I was in the vast minority, I kept that little bit of info to myself. Upon reaching that part of the semester, or book, or school year, I heard the overwhelming groans from the other students. Secretly smiling to myself, I relished the time that we spent on what I considered to be a cerebral playground—though I would not have had these words in those days.
After all, we were taught that no one could really strictly interpret the absolute, sole and final meaning of any poem, and that meant there were no wrong answers, as long as the general drift was caught. This placed poetry into my world, the world of art, imagination. Breathing room at last. Enduring my well-known mathematical disability, suddenly the shoe, for me, was on the other foot!
A lot of kids—and even a lot of teachers—hated poetry because of that latitude, that extra leeway for interpretation. It was funny to me to observe a teacher who was obviously passionate about poetry, singing into the air about the beauty of a rose, or the color of one’s true love’s hair in the morning, while all the students were making rude noises and being generally inattentive. It was even funnier, however, to see a teacher who had no affinity for poetry trying to grit and grind through the section, trying to force analytical or mathematical principles onto the flower petals of a love poem.
I remember some very grim faces from those days. They looked like a 20-mule team slogging uphill with a lead mule that they weren’t sure would make it.
Probably some time around fifth grade, my eyes were opened to the delightful world of poetry when I first heard what is still one of my favorite poems. It was the masterpiece by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known to you and me as Lewis Carroll. It was, of course, “Jabberwocky.” I can still recite it verbatim.
“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” The piece was a little like impressionist art. The textbook called it things like “nonsensical” or “whimsical,” but it made perfect sense to me. It was written in a style that barely used proper modern English, and a lot of the words were only comprehensible in context. Once read in its entirety, it gave you the feeling that somehow you had just read something written in a foreign language, and by some miracle, completely understood it. That was like magic to me.
The biggest tragedy to me about poetry is that, very much like visual art, we tend academically to over-analyze it before we learn to enjoy it. If you start with “Jabberwocky,” you can’t help but have fun.
In college, I had several great English professors who were eager and astute in the subject of poetry. We learned how to construct a poem, how to use both sides of our brains to interpret poetry, and the deep, rich history of poetic writing. We learned rhythms, meters, and devices to delight the reader. The best attempt at a definition for poetry that I remember from the textbook was the “fusion of sound and sense,” though that definition, appropriately I guess, still left some ends untied.
A great and passionate teacher of words at Campbellsville University, Professor L.M. Hamilton got our attention one day in class. He said, “these words will mean something to you for the rest of your life. You will remember them into old age.” And he quoted the last line of William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl”: “He, who from zone to zone, guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight, in the long way I must tread alone will lead my steps aright.”
“What a silly old man,” I thought to myself. “I won’t memorize those words past midterms.” But those words are still in my heart to this day. Stop me on the street and I’ll quote them to you.
God bless L. M. Hamilton.
After years, I came to realize that I’d had a head start in poetry. My mother loved the Psalms, and she can still quote more of the prosaic books in the Old Testament than probably anyone I know. Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon. She read those to me when I was very small. She quoted them to me from memory as I grew. Wisdom in poetry. Well-written, intentional words that can guide a person in any kind of situation or circumstance. Words of life.
So many years and poems later, my beautiful daughter came home from elementary school one day and blew my mind.
She said, “I learned a great poem today called ‘Jabberwocky.’ Wanna hear it?”
She quoted it word for word.