By Betty Mills
When confined by the frigid weather to home and hearth, I decided to reorganize my bookcase containing a lifelong accumulation of poetry, and I stumbled upon two volumes purchased but never read. They are collections of poetry subtitled with amazing accuracy, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud . . . and Other Poems You Half Remember From School,” and “Tyger Tyger Burning Bright: Much-Loved Poems You Half Remember.” Coupled with another volume I owned on how to read poetry (from one punctuation point to the next and reading out loud), it seemed the perfect antidote to what was going on outside my windows.
The books were published in Great Britain, and the editor, Ana Sampson, includes a very brief biography for each poet. So, I learned such disparate facts as that Robert Frost suffered from poor health and shyness, but he was a popular figure on the lecture circuit, which he did to pay the bills. He won the Pulitzer Prize four times, and by request, wrote a poem to deliver at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. When the wind blew away his copy, he recited another poem, “The Gift Outright,” from memory. He was 86 years old.
Emma Lazarus, in 1883, wrote the poem inscribed on the Statue of LIberty. She wrote it as a fundraiser to build a pedestal under the statue, but it has a timely message for 2019:
Poetry often gets an unfair negative vote; I suspect because of how it is originally encountered. There’s nothing like a boring piece of poetry required to be memorized to plant in a student’s mind a life-long aversion. But, I was lucky. I had several poetry-loving teachers who made the words come alive by reading them to us.
Both of my parents loved poetry, and my mother wrote a few, long ago lost in the confusion which can follow major moves. My father, with his fifth grade education, memorized many poems with me, and I was transported readily down memory lane by several quoted in the books, including Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” which for a lovely monetary stretch, he paid me one dollar if I could recite the whole thing. Presumably, he hoped some of Kipling’s admonitions would stick in my memory, too.
Admittedly, with the snow piling up on my balcony and highways closed due to the bad weather, it was fun to come upon a bit of nonsense verse by Thomas Grey, who is associated usually with the somber “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” — “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day . . .”
So I was suitably surprised to discover he also wrote “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes.” The final line warns, “Know one false step is ne’er retrieved . . . / Nor all that glisters, gold.” The cat belonged to his best friend who one presumes approved.
Then there’s a short bit by Oliver Goldsmith entitled “When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly,” a piece of literature much parodied in its day with such lines as “The evening can be awf’ly jolly.”
Perhaps most surprising was the number of familiar lines I discovered, many of them not necessarily associated in my mind any longer with poetry:
“April is the cruelest month . . .”
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less travelled by.”
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves.”
“Laugh and the world laughs with you; / Weep and you weep alone;”
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
“When you are old and grey and full of sleep.”
“If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.”
In retrospect, I realize that those lines were not connected in my mind with a particular piece of poetry but stood in their own right for a memory, a philosophy, an admonition. They were like old friends I hadn’t thought of for a while.
Perhaps I shouldn’t wait for another day of bad weather to revisit the poetry that has become part of my life.
Betty Mills is the granddaughter of Morton county homesteaders. An avid reader, Betty’s home is filled with books, and she belongs to three book clubs. She was a political columnist for the Bismarck Tribune for 25 years and active on numerous boards and councils. At the age of 92, Betty still finds joy in writing.