The power, beauty and knowledge of a poem

Do you miss the satisfaction of hands-on experiences performed in a natural setting? Would you rather forgo digital events whose webs are not so easily wiped away? In your affluence are you acquiring new when you know the serviceable old will yet do?

Are you thinking a return to a simpler time would be just fine? If so, consider these slightly massaged verses:

The Passing Of The Backhouse by James Whitcomb Riley

“When memory keeps me company and moves to

smiles and tears, a weather beaten object looms

through the mist of years. — when the crust was on the snow

and sullen skies were grey,

this building was no place where one would wish to stay —

fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies —

so we did our duties promptly there —

only one purpose swayed the mind.

We tarried not, nor lingered long on what was left behind.”

“The torture of the icy seat would make a Spartan sob,

For needs must scrape the goose flesh with a lacerating cob

that from a frost encrusted nail, was hanging pendant by a string,

My father was a frugal man and wasted not a thing.”

Got the image; feel the sensation? Has not your desire to return been cleanly wiped away?

Such is the power of a poem, a working poem, one that can be trotted out, harnessed, then put to work. One worn to the saddle and ready for use in the field — a poem memorized.

“Why bother?”

In early times, even before Bill Speer’s coveted Sears catalogs, back before printed or written language, people memorized ballads and poems. They carried the knowledge, tradition, and wisdom of generations. Repeated, poems helped cultures survive.

“But we can Google all that stuff!”

No, we can’t. Just as it was with our gourmet Muslim hamburger chef, “Push ’em up” Tony, some things are non-Google essences. Take for example Rudyard Kipling’s poem IF, here much abbreviated and mildly modified.

If you can trust yourself when all people doubt you,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If being lied to, you don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated don’t give in to hating —

When nothing is left in you — you still hold on.

If you can meet triumph and disaster and

treat those two imposters just the same.

Then, you’ll be a woman, my daughter — or a man, my son.

After your young granddaughter’s first reading she will likely conclude something wise is written there. But as a young woman, someone who she believes loves her may betray her, or someone she respects mislead her with a detrimental lie. Only then will those words, to her soul, reveal their meaning and as they flow from her memory she’ll reflect: “Now, I understand why my grandmother had me memorize that poem.”

No Google search will ever return such knowledge.

This Christmas consider giving the gift of a poem worth memorizing. Caroline Kennedy’s Poems To Learn By Heart has suggestions for the young and young at heart and is beautifully illustrated. John Hollander’s Committed To Memory — 100 Best Poems to Memorize is another source. There are others; with any, you can assist.

I’ll end this column with verses from a working poem: Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life

Tell me not in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!

For the soul is dead that slumbers

And things are not what they seem.

Not enjoyment and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Finds us farther than today.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor — and to wait.