Where does a love for poetry come from? What was the inspiration? Was it that special teacher at school? Picture books in rhyme? Did I ever meet a “live” poet as a child? I don’t think so but certainly I was surrounded by verse – or poetry. Lear was there, the Nonsense Songs so much part of everyday reading and recitation that the distant hills of Perthshire as we drove across the moors were definitely the Hills of the Chankly Bore. And, of course, I knew why the poor Pobble had lost his toes while the Dong wandered across my imagination, his luminous nose shining brightly. There was Lewis Carroll and Old Father William standing on his head while the Lobsters eagerly lined the shore.
Was this poetry? Perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson; his childhood home was not so far from us. My great aunt knew him and set poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses to music so Dark brown is the River is forever singing in my memory.
Windy Nights Robert Louis Stevenson
Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?
Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.
Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon, Rose Fyleman and the Taylors – Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, not a nursery rhyme but a poem written for children, four verses sung to us by Mother to what must be an Edwardian tune – certainly not Mozart. I don’t think I ever thought of these as poetry; they were part of the fabric of childhood, recited by adults, peppered across the Beacon Readers (a beloved source of reading for me). They had rhyme, rhythm and imagination. But poetry? I never thought about it and I don’t recall it being part of any lesson until later.
I was ill – or deemed to be ill. I think it may have been chicken pox though I don’t remember any spots or even feeling ill. I must have been 10 or 11. Quarantined upstairs, alone in the bedroom, I wasn’t reading but listening to that magical radio programme, The Children’s Hour, a programme that enchanted and instructed.
This evening the programme was about a poet and a poem – Keats and his Ode to a Nightingale. I was transfixed. There was, naturally, a romantic tragic poet to meet, but it was the poem itself that captured my attention. I had never really appreciated language could be so beautiful, that images could be so vivid, so real, so layered and that there were references that led you to other stories, adding depth. I fell in love with poetry. At the first opportunity – I think it might even have been that same evening – I learnt the Ode by heart.
An anthology of poems would always feature among books borrowed from the library from then on. I discovered Other Men’s Flowers – the anthology compiled by A P Wavell (Field-Marshall Earl Wavell). Maybe many of the poems he loved might not be so popular now – but they opened doors to me. Then there was Walter de la Mare’s Come Hither with his fascinating notes. I know I am a romantic and find angry poems difficult. It is the words, vocabulary that has a history but also looks forward, words that ring in the mind, dramatic stories to grab the attention as you follow Don John of Austria to war or weep with the ladies over Sir Patrick Spens.
And if you think I am looking back too much, Yeats, Eliot, Carol Ann Duffy… new poets, new poems. I am still discovering new worlds, taking new journeys with poets I meet on the Underground, on the radio, casually tossed into a novel or in the exciting anthologies that are appearing, aiming to capture young readers with their web of words.
I fell in love with poetry as a child and I haven’t looked back. It was a chance encounter – I am sure there will be plenty of children who like me are waiting to fall under the spell of words created by a poem. It might be through school but I think far more likely a voice, either leaping off a page or spoken. Read poems aloud and relish the sounds – just read. The teaching comes much later, I believe.
Ferelith Hordon has been a Children’s Librarian with Wandsworth for almost the whole of her career. Though now retired she remains active in the children’s book world serving on the committees of Youth Library Group, IBBY UK and Children’s Books History Society, as well as assisting with Books for Keeps.
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