After nursery rhymes, the first poem I ever memorized came, I believe, when I was 6. I could read pretty well by then, but I remember having a good deal of help with it from my father. He used to read aloud to me and my sister Joan. But there was something entirely different about learning something by heart, which then and now is miserably difficult for me .
So, bereft of the gift, I bitterly envy the capacity for memorizing things. Decades after my struggles as a 6-year-old, I have acquaintances who insist my terrible difficulty with learning word-perfect is simply laziness, that if only I applied enough will, character and mind-muscle I could do it just as well as those awesome creatures I have known who can and do - drunk or sober - recite entire acts of Shakespeare's plays flawlessly and then throw in a scene of two of Moliere in nicely disciplined 17th century Parisian inflections.
But I digress.
A moment before writing these lines, I tried to recite to myself that first poem, and failed miserably. But vividly I remember the effect, the effects, it had on my life then: dramatic, even explosive, and also consoling.
First, the poem. It was a short one, G.K. Chesterton's "The Donkey." Here it is from my dog-eared 1939 edition of "The Oxford Book of English Verse":
When fishes flew and forests
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tatter'd outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
My father helped me with the words and even a bit with phrasing, but adamantly refused to talk about the meaning or meanings. "Poems mean what you take them to mean," he said, or something very like that. "They are not puzzles or arithmetic sums." He was a writer, and in fact had had a small book of poems published. I wasn't in a position to argue.
So I remember to this day the sensation of pursuing the meanings of bits and pieces of that poem, starting off with the difficult problem, to me, of dealing with how a donkey, who seemed to be speaking, could speak.
I worked that out with a sense of knowing that - whatever my father said to the contrary - it was a puzzle. Then it came to me that in nursery rhymes and fairy stories animals behaved and spoke as humans, more often than not in fact.
"The moon was blood" was troubling. I chewed at it, for a long time, with no help forthcoming, with nowhere to go for an answer except inside myself. And then there came a late afternoon, that midsummer, with a thunderstorm boiling up from the east. There was a sunset of wild, weird drama, the sky angry, lightning behind me, the sun itself still visible, a circle poised on the horizon, an almost painful purple - blood red, dark blood, I realized, and suddenly the moon and fearful forces and anger and mystery clicked together.
Odd perhaps, but the final verse came easily and early to me. Palms were things I had seen only in the course of the church service the Sunday before Easter and so the sole and automatic image was that of Jesus entering Jerusalem, triumphal, mounted.
To everybody's credit, I was never put through that unspeakable practice of forcing children to recite or perform for visitors or kin: as vile a torture for audience as for child. But I did recite the poem to my father from time to time, and often to myself.
And I found, whenever I felt particularly alone or misunderstood, or frightened, especially frightened, that on getting to the "Fools!" of the final verse there was huge comfort in letting the scorn of its exclamation point explode with righteousness.
Integral to life
It was with that, I suppose, that poetry became important to me - or more. Became an integral element of my life, a necessity. For a decade after that first one and then a decade beyond that, no year went by without some major new discovery of, through, and by poetry.
I find myself these days reading back, mostly. I keep up with some new poetry; there is lots being published. But little of it does to me what many poets did in the 1950s and '60s, and even into the '70s.
Perhaps I just don't get something that is going on in today's poetry. Perhaps I have become unreceptive - though I don't find the same lack of excitement in contemporary novels or drama or painting or sculpture. Perhaps the last decade or so is just a bad RTC patch for poetry in general, as some of my more knowledgeable friends suggest. Perhaps none of all of the above.
But then the first entry in my old "Oxford Book of English Verse" is dated 1226, and I find I still read Ovid, from 1,200 years before that, so there's no drought of poetry to read. If I don't find the intensity in today's new poetry that I did in the blazing discoveries of my 20s and before, perhaps I'm dulling down.
I hope not. But whatever, don't blame the poets. They're doing the work of the gods - and of God.