I wanted my kids to grow up comfortable with rhyme and rhythm, unafraid to listen to language that lilts or themes that need time to digest. So when they were little, I read poetry to them. Mostly at breakfast. Sometimes at lunch. Always around our table.
We started with simple poems like “Trees, ” and “Who Has Seen the Wind?”, and silly poems like “The Purple Cow” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” The kids smiled and laughed as we passed around poetry anthologies or crinkly printouts smeared with raspberry jam.
One time when my parents were visiting, I invited one of the girls to recite a memorized poem. As soon as she was finished, Mom asked to share one, too. Mom launched into “The Owl and the Pussycat, ” and when she was done, Dad recited a few phrases and the refrain from “The Battle of Blenheim.” I pulled off most of “Jabberwocky.”
Despite the success of our literary diet, we slacked off. I don’t have a good reason why; I guess I’m undisciplined and easily distracted. For long stretches—months, even seasons—we didn’t bother inviting Dylan, e.e., Emily, or Edgar to join us around the table. We munched carrot sticks and peanut butter-and-jelly in relative silence.
Then, out of the blue, I’d feel inspired and whip out an anthology, pulling from collections that included “The Chambered Nautilus, ” “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?”, “Ozymandias, ” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ” and “The Raven.” We’d pass around the book and the next child would swallow her bite of grilled cheese sandwich before doing her best to work her tongue round the words and feel the rhythm of the lines. As I introduced a literary device, they began to listen for it, spotting metaphors and similes, alliteration and repetition. On occasion we even joined in chorus as a word or line came round. The reader would pause, and we’d muster up our most sinister voices to murmur: “Nevermore!” These poetry jams would continue another few months before slacking off again.
In this inconsistent, erratic manner, I tried to make poetry part of our lives.
Looking back, I regret we didn’t commit to it. My oldest heads off to college next fall; the youngest will be a sixth grader. We have fallen out of the habit yet again, not only because of my flighty nature, but in part because they began to resist, preferring to chat about plans for the day while eating toast and sipping coffee—you know, like normal people tend to do around at mealtimes.
We haven’t regularly read poetry with my children at the table for at least a year, maybe two.
Then, recently, I was setting the Advent wreath on the kitchen table, positioning candles, wondering what I might share during that traditional pause after dinner on the first Sunday of the season. My son had popped in James Taylor’s Christmas CD, and through the speakers in the living room, I heard a poem I’d read to the kids when they were little. I ran to the computer and looked it up, printing out a copy to share.
After we finished our meal and cleaned up the plates, we returned to our chairs for our simple tradition. I lit the first candle and pulled out the paper. I looked at the faces of these kids of mine—kids who had grown up with poetry and who, over time, had grown bored with poetry.
I smiled, and then, around the table, by the light of a single, flickering candle, I quietly read a poem.
In the bleak midwinter…