My very first experience of poetry began with a First Little Golden Book titled Three Little Kittens. The original work is a poem by Eliza Lee Cabot Follen (1787-1860). As a very small child I’m sure I was interested in the story, at least for a while, but what was more important to me was how the words sounded when they were read aloud. Perhaps that is why, even today, I prefer to experience poetry that is performed and I prefer to do poetry readings instead of publishing my work.
The Three Little Kittens will always be a spherical memory for me rooted in the rhythm of my father’s heartbeat, breath, and warmth as my head lay on his chest; the cadence of his words as he read the poem to me.
This sojourn to poetry is part of my lifelong awe of the natural world. I’ve always been curious about nature, whether as a child looking up at stars or later as a scientist interacting with the universe via microscope or telescope. But I continually return to the poem, the story, and the sound of the words that describe the experience of events that really only have particular color and texture because I witnessed them.
I started writing poetry when I was very young as well, but for slightly different reasons. I used it as a way to preserve my privacy and test out my hypotheses of the world. It was my way of encoding my views so no one could tell me my observations of people, places or things were childish, or incorrect or–sin of sins–impolite.
Inside my writing I could run wild and naked with no one to call me in to wash up and fold my hands for prayer. Wildly imaginative children have to find ways to defend themselves against the sensible world so their creativity cannot be broken and saddled prematurely. I have always been much to willful in my passions to ever tolerate having my writing or myself be fully broken. But I can be coaxed with beautiful sounding words, no matter what the language.
When I spent a summer in Ireland and Wales I would listen for hours to the sound of tales being told in Welsh and Gaelic. I didn’t need to know what any of the words meant, it was the tonality and emotion of the telling that attracted me.
My landlady that summer told of being a small child on her way to church one Sunday with her parents. Apparently they crossed a bridge where she observed a very old man talking to the stream below. She turned to her father and asked if the old man was mad. Her father replied, “No, he’s a poet. His name is Yeats.”
There is something comforting in the image of poets conversing with the universe, even if their job title is scientist by day; and whether poet or scientist I’m okay with a little madness either way.
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