Knowing By Heart

A club two towns away invited me to give a lesson, on favorite poems. There would be about a dozen members in attendance, I was told. As it turned out, I knew them all, at least to say hello, and some have been my friends for years.

As was the case with the rest of the country, our minds were still on the hurricane that devastated New York and other eastern cities earlier in the week. My family members who live on Staten Island had come through it unharmed. We all have sorrow for those who did not.

About my little gig at the Arts and History Club in Albion, Nebraska, I can say that it went well. Faces brightened in recognition as I read aloud The Village Blacksmith, and The North Wind Doth Blow and Abou Ben Adhem. They are not, however,  the poems I am likely to remember from that pleasant afternoon. Instead, I am thinking of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, a poem by Eugene Field. One person told us that her mother used to read it to her at bedtime.

“Would you like to read it for us?” I passed the borrowed anthology to her, and she began—and could not finish. She had come across a tender long-ago memory, and for a moment, we all “remembered” with her…And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies is a wee one’s trundle bed. / So shut your eyes while Mother sings of wonderful
sights that be, /And you shall see the beautiful things as you rock in the misty sea…

Perhaps because of the stories of homes destroyed and people still missing, thinking of the wee one’s trundle bed, the sweet dreams at night, the Mother close by—was almost too much for us all.

My lesson, you see, was about three ways in which a poem might get on the inside of us: through long acquaintance; or when it takes us in memory to a place we have been; or when it takes us instead to a new place altogether. Such are the delights of poetry.

I had forgotten to say that we might also come to love a poem because someone we love once read it to us or knew it by heart. It is, you know, the way we really know—by heart.

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