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First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them Paperback – April 20, 2001
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The Washington Post A funny and provocative collection of short essays about falling in love with words. -- Review
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter One: VIRGINIA HAMILTON ADAIR
I don't recall ever hearing the word poetry as a small child. My first five years were spent in an apartment in the Bronx with parents who took great pleasure in the English language. Their normal conversation was apt to contain bits and pieces also of German, French, Latin, and Greek. They both read to me verse in every shape and size -- the whole gamut -- everything from Mother Goose to Pope's translation of The Iliad. My father read to me in my crib when he came home from his Wall Street office; when he was getting dressed in the morning he would recite Mother Goose rhymes to make me laugh. Some lines of Longfellow I enjoyed hearing over and over, especially about Grave Alice and Laughing Allegra and Edith with Golden Hair. I wanted to be one of them, climbing the stairs to a time called "The Children's Hour." And my father played a little game: stopping short of the end of the line, he would give me an expectant look and was pleased when I came up with a rhyming word.
My father also wrote verse and sent off poems that were published in Century magazine, a year or so before I was born; one of them became my first love in poetry. It had a Mother Goose simplicity to it -- a perfect little lyric with personification, but with the double meaning that would reveal itself to me later. The poem was important to me because my rather mysterious father wrote it. But his walk with the second girl in the poem, Sorrow, made me a little uneasy. (I wanted him to walk with the first girl, who sounded more fun.) How could he learn anything from the second girl if she didn't say anything? It took me some years to realize that my witty father was telling us a secret about his walk with the two girls. Even now, eighty years later, I wonder what was his secret sorrow?
When asked what was my first poem, I have to say it was not written but spoken, at the age of two, when I shouted, "She looked at the canna and Jim-Jamma-Jane!" There was a cannon in a garden in Asbury Park, surrounded by a bed of what I called roses. My mother corrected me: "Those aren't roses; they are canna." I confused the two similar words and was entranced by their likeness. I found it perfectly hilarious that the cannon sat in the canna; it was a record of coming alive to words, a moment when the child sees that words are going to be fun.
In the fifth grade we copied long poems in French: Ah, les bons temps qui secoulaient dans le moulin de mon grandpère. We were supposed to copy and memorize, but from "Grandpa's mill" I made my own poem. To this day, if I memorize a poem, it is gone tomorrow, past the mill wheel into the brook that cries out in a Tennyson poem, "But I go on for ever." A few grades past the good times in Grandpa's mill, other lines in other languages delighted me: arma virumque cano; Du bist wie eine Blume; canto a buordo son Napolitani....
There was an absurd variation in the examples of poetry given me as a child. This hodgepodge is a key to my own writing; the eclectic range has become a hallmark of my poetry. Aside from a few parodies, I have had no desire to imitate someone else's poem, but just to join in the fun -- the skipping, dancing, jumping, running. I like something catchy, a beat to dance to, the beginning of a story, wordplay. I have used special confusions of words as a device, and -- once I understood the personification in my father's poem -- used that as another device in some of my poems: for example, a toaster, a jalopy, an old umbrella.
Personification is now out of style, and "Along the Road" is now out of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, having been included for most of this century. But with poetry everything comes back eventually, like fashions and costumes. The double layers of personification mature into levels of meaning that a poem of substance contains; one that even the poet may not fully recognize in his poem. We often miss our own meanings. Sensitive readers have shown me things in my poems I was not aware of. To each, his own reading: a flower opening, a seed sprouting, a tree rising. The simplest poem may contain mystery, as I learned from my father's walk along the road.
ALONG THE ROAD
I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne'er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me.
Robert Browning Hamilton
Copyright © 2000 by Carmen Ciuraru
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It is also a good book to share with your own children. What's nice to know is that, in the middle of today's crazy world, young people are still stumbling across their very first poem, and again are succumbing to the pleasures of the word. A noble book, filled with lasting memories.