I have no idea how poetry got into my life. All I know is that I have appreciated poetry for well over 60 years. I noted in my diary that at Philmont Scout Ranch in 1946 that I recited the poem “The Day is Done” by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow at a campfire ceremony. Without cheating let me see how much of it I still remember. Those of you who want to give this professor a grade can check this against the printed form and send me a correction.
“The day is done and the darkness
Falls on the wings of night
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul can not resist.
A feeling of sadness and longing
That is not akin to pain
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay
That shall sooth this restless feeling
And banish the thoughts of day.
Read to me not from the grand old masters
Nor from the bards sublime
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of time.
For like strains of martial music
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor
And tonight I long for rest.
Read to me rather from some humbler poet
Whose songs gushed forth from his heart
As rain from the clouds of summer
Or tears from the eyelids start.
Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have the power to quiet
The restless pulse of care
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
So pick up thy treasured volume
And read the poem of thy choice
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be filled with music
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs
And silently steal away.
I remember that a neighbor for whom I did gardening gave me my first book of poetry, a book of the complete works of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow. That must have been back in about 1943 or 1944. I can still recite many others of his poems that I had committed to memory. I used to write the verses of the poems on little cards and as I rode my bike to school I would look at the cards and memorize the verses. When in Korea in the Army back 55 years ago or so I had several books of poetry in my tent. It was interesting for me to note how many officers, when inspecting our tents, singled out my books of poetry for comment. I guess taking a book of poems to war is not normal.
Earlier this year my wife, noting an article in the newspaper said, “Oh, today is Flag Day.” And immediately, without thinking, I responded “Hats off, along the street there comes, a blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums, a flash of color beneath the sky, hats off, the flag is passing by. Blue and crimson and white it shines, O’er the steel-tipped, ordered lines. Hats off! The colors before us fly, but more than the flag is passing by…” and on and on I went until she said “stop it, I am trying to read.” Oh, well, she has heard them all before.
I often memorize short poems or passages from books that catch my fancy. Once, when attending a class on “French for Doctoral Candidates” which was given from 8 to 9 a.m. daily for four weeks followed by the doctoral language exam, the instructor, an older professor, stood in front of the class and said (in English) “Man is but a reed.” He paused and I thought he was waiting for some one to continue the rest of the statement so I said aloud “the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The universe need not arm itself in order to destroy him. A drop of water, a bit of vapor suffices to kill him but if the universe were to crush him man would still be more noble than that which killed him, for he knows that he dies and of this the universe knows nothing.” I was sitting in the center of the front row of the classroom with about 300 students behind and along side me. He said “Young man, see me after class.”
I did so and he inquired how come I knew that quotation from Blaise Pascal. I responded that when I was sitting on mountain tops in Panama and Guatemala working for the Inter-American Geodetic Survey I always took a stack of books with me and on one occasion I took a copy of the Ponse of Pascal. “What else do you know from that work?” he asked. I proceeded to recite half a dozen more fragments such as “Why do you kill me?” “What? Are you not from the other side of the mountain? I shall be a hero. Were you from this side of the mountain I would be a murderer.” Or “a fly lands on the King’s nose. History is changed.” He expressed pleasure that I liked Pascal and told me that I should make certain that I have him as my examiner since there were three proctors for the exam. Well the day of the exam I made sure I was in his room. He came to where I was sitting and randomly opened the book from which I was to translate a section and had me begin my translation. Within ten minutes he came by, took a look at my work and said, “Good job” and proceeded to sign my card as having passed the French language exam. I was the first out of the room. I maintain that I did not pass in French but rather in Pascal, which happens to be a computer language named after this French philosopher, mathematician and scientist.
One day, many years later, I stood in front of my class, looked at the students and began “Man is but a reed…” and at the end of the recitation asked who in the class could recite one or more verses of poetry or phrases from classical literature. No one venture to respond. Then our class ‘redneck’ sheepishly raised his hand. I encouraged him to go on… and he recited verses from contemporary poets. This astonished his class mates as he came across as a guy who raced motorcycles, was a commercial fisherman in Alaska (in season) played loud music and sneered at ‘bleeding heart liberals’. I asked him how come he learned poems and he, to the delight of the class, actually blushed a bit and laughed. He said his mother posted poems on the bathroom wall behind the toilet and lavished praise on the child who first could recite the new poem. He said the boys in the family had a distinct advantage over the girls and always learned to recite the poems before they did. We all laughed.
Once, at a formal dinner hosted by the Governor of Sichuan Province, China for Governor Spellman of Washington State our governor led about 30 of us Washingtonians in singing a number of old standard U.S. folk songs. We would have come off OK if he had limited it to one verse of each song but he insisted on singing three, four or five verses. That often left him singing alone at the end, much to our collective embarrassment. On conclusion he asked the Chinese governor to have the Chinese delegation sing some Chinese songs.
“No,” the Chinese Governor responded. “I will recite to you a 17th century Chinese poem about a fisherman going down the Yangtze River from Chungching to Wuhan. I do not want it translated. I merely want you to listen to the sounds and the cadence of the words and envision the boat going through the gorges, down the rapids, along the quiet stretches of the river and then finally arriving home to family in Wuhan.” He then proceeded to recite at least twenty verses of that classical poem. It was a magnificent tour de force. Wow! I wonder if the current governor of Alaska can do the same? Or the governor of Washington State?
One day I read in the local newspaper that Ethel Boynton Crook was celebrating her 95th birthday. I went to see her in the retirement facility where she was living and shared with her my pleasure at knowing her mother, Sue C. Boynton, who, almost 30 years earlier, at age 95 read one of her poems at the Bi-Centennial ceremony that I had organized which took place in the old city hall. I also told her how I had invited her mother to come to one of my classes on “Community Organizing” to tell how she created the PTA association in Boston back in 1895. When in front of the class, “Mother Boynton” as she was wont to be called, said “I have to admit I lied to Dr. Drake when I said I would love to talk about community organizing in Boston in 1895. But I just had to get out of that nursing home. The people there are lacking in life, lacking in spirit, lacking in joy. I wanted to come here to see young people, people with energy, spirit and joy, so please forgive me if I do not talk about Boston in 1895. I would rather show you some family photographs and recite for you some of my poems.” I assured her she could do whatever she wanted.
For almost an hour she had that class entranced with her stories, which were suggested by the photographs she passed around the room. She recited or read poems she had written in years past, recalling one or another while telling about a photograph or an incident in her life. When the hour was up the class did something no other class had ever done, they gave her a standing ovation! It was a ‘love in.’
I asked Sue Boynton’s daughter, Ethel, if she would join me in creating a county-wide poetry contest in her mother’s name, the “Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest and Poetry Walk.” The contest would be open to any one who could write, of any age or level of education. The top ten poems would be engraved in plastic and mounted for one year on the “Sue C. Boynton Poetry Walk” and those poems plus the next 15 works, called “Merit Awards” would be printed and displayed in the city buses for the ensuing year. She agreed and with financial help from her family and friends we got the project going.
We formed a committee that had on it several nationally known poets. They, in turn, contacted colleagues to serve as jurors for the contest. The only information the jurors have about the poet is their grade in school if they are in a K-12 class. The first year we had 78 contestants, the second year 125 persons sent in poems and this year we had 275 participants ranging from first graders to an 82 year old grandmother. The awards ceremony brings a large crowd to the rotunda room of the old city hall. After a few more years the project will be ‘institutionalized’ and have a permanent niche in the cultural life of this community. This year a prize winning third-grader ‘brought the house down’ when he read “My mother is having another baby. I hope it is better than the last one.” As you can see, our jurors define poetry fairly widely.
Shortly after the poetry contest was publicly announced in the local media a member of the county historical society visited me and asked if I wanted (free) copies of the book that they had published years ago on the life of Sue C. Boynton since they had quite an overstock of the volume. I naively said we could use all that he had as we would give them as prizes to contest winners. The next week he showed up with almost 1,000 copies of the book. We distributed the book to all senior centers, to all retirement homes and nursing homes, to every school in the county (over 125 of them) and to all libraries. The distribution of the book helps ‘legitimize’ the poetry contest, making it truly a part of the culture and history of this community.
=========== It is now past midnight so I can say, “the day is done and the darkness…..” gfd