“Blessings on thee, little man,/ barefoot boy with cheek of tan,/ with thy turned-up pantaloons/ and thy merry whistled tunes…”
Those of you who were in grammar school in the ‘40s may recognize these words from “Barefoot Boy,” a long poem (about 100 lines) by John Greenleaf Whittier, which I memorized back when I was in the sixth grade. It was for shock value. We pupils in our tiny school in tiny town Texas were required by our English teacher to recite every Friday a poem of our choosing. I wanted to impress her — and the class — with my prodigious abilities in memorization, so I chose “Barefoot Boy” one week.
I don’t recall any applause, nor do I remember how many times I had to be prompted. And the lines above are all of the poem I can recite after 66 years. Well, maybe not all, but I can still give you scattered phrases — “with the sunshine on thy face/ through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace…”
Of other Friday poetry I can remember more — “In Flanders Field the poppies blow/ between the crosses row on row/ that mark our place and in the sky/ the larks still bravely singing fly./ We are the dead, short days ago/ we loved, were loved/ felt sunset’s glow./ Now we lie in Flanders Field…”
And, “The little toy dog is covered with dust/ but sturdy and staunch he stands;/ the little toy soldier is red with rust/ and his musket molds in his hands…” I remember all of this one, which used to bring me to tears.
And who could forget Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Between the dark and the daylight/when night is beginning to lower/comes a pause in the day‘s occupations/ that is known as the children‘s hour“ with “grave Alice and laughing Allegra, and Edith, with golden hair …“? (It’s strange that I can recall lines from these poems when I can’t find my glasses, or locate a soft drink I was sipping on.)
I got to thinking about the above verses the other day after reading a newspaper article reporting that poetry is virtually dead. But, having a 15-year-old grandson who goes to Lusher school and can recite many of the lines I used to, from Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling and the like, I don’t believe that’s strictly true. It bothers me anyway though.
It seems that fewer poems are being published these days, that almost nobody is very familiar with the work of the various poets laureate of this country and abroad, and people who do especially like poetry are folks as old as I am and the writers we like are twice as old as we are.
In other words, poetry is going the way of land lines, daily newspapers, any kind of taste or self-censorship on television, short hair on women with wrinkles and saggy jowls, etc. — do I sound querulous? I hope so.
This poem from Edna St. Vincent Millay, which I encountered as a teenager and immediately loved for its sophistication and sarcasm, would have been an easy Friday poem to memorize: “My candle burns at both ends/ it will not last the night./ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends/ it gives a lovely light!”
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.