In my older brothers’ generation, memorizing poetry was a part of school curriculum. I remember as a child hearing two of them, Max and Ray, chanting out the verses to Gunga Din, by Rudyard Kipling. While milking cows or feeding livestock, my teenage brothers recited poetry or sang together. As you will see below in another post, this is a long poem, but they knew every word and Max can still recite it in his 81st year.
The stereotype of farm boys in the Deep South in the 1940s and ‘50s did not include reading and loving poetry. But in our schools, English teachers enjoyed poetry and made it part of the required reading. Max and Ray often entertained me with The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe.
My role models were my sister and my mother. Both were avid readers. Both enjoyed school. Winken, Blinken and Nod, one night, set off in a Wooden Shoe. I begged my big sister, June, to say that poem as she tucked me into bed each night. She pulled the covers up around me and repeated Eugene Fields' words to me in the dark while I traveled out on the night with Winken, Blinken and Nod.
Recently Newt Smith, Treasurer of Netwest, commented at Coffee with the Poets in Sylva, that his mother, as a child, would take a book of poetry with her and read while she milked the cow. In rural America, it was hard to find free time to engage in a pastime such as reading and learning poetry. There was always work to be done.
The stereotype in movies and on television would have you believe southern boys and girls were lazy, ignorant and hardly attended school. I did not know any of those stereotypical children where I grew up in southwest Georgia. My siblings and our neighbors’ kids graduated from high school while also working on the farm with their parents. All four of my brothers, along with my husband, in 1969, built a national manufacturing business which thrived in a tiny little town in Georgia until the company was sold to a California firm in the nineties.
After World War II, my brother who served in the Navy, graduated from college, ,thanks to the GI Bill. After college, he taught school and on Saturday mornings when he was home, he filled the house with the sounds of classical music and Opera. I was a high school student at that time and hardly appreciated his choice of music.
Reciting poetry, as my brothers and sisters did, seems to be a fading art today, except for a few performance poets and the Poetry Slams I read about. Michael Beadle from Haywood County is an exciting performance poet. I also enjoyed Charley Pearson’s recitation at a Netwest Picnic a few years ago. We see this in larger cities, but not in small towns.
Another southern man named Max often drops in to Coffee with the Poets in Hayesville, NC at Phillips and Lloyd bookstore. His brain is stocked with verses he learned while growing up in Georgia. We enjoy hearing him recite a few each time he comes.
Newt suspects memorizing poetry was popular in the early past century because books were hard to come by back then. The only books my brothers had were their school books or a book checked out from the book mobile in summer.
I am happy to say that the children in Hayesville and Murphy schools in North Carolina are exposed to poetry. I know this because I have read their poems in the annual Poetry contests held each year, and each year I am amazed at the work from these kids.
If you are a teacher or a parent of children in school, do you think the schools devote enough time to reading and learning poetry? Should they spend time on poetry? We would love to have your comments. Did you learn to recite poetry as a child?