I still have the first poetry book I ever bought, Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.
My mother was a great one for reading aloud to her young children. Some of my earliest memories (notwithstanding putting the dog in the oven or pouring shoe polish on the sofa) are of my mother reading to me. I learned many Mother Goose nursery rhymes sitting next to her on the (repaired) sofa. Story time involved a big green book entitled Stories Children Love by Watty Piper, first published in the 1920s with the kinds of illustrations popular for children at the time.
I still have that book. I loved the stories filled with big bad wolves, evil stepmothers, giants, and ogres. The binding is now wearing thin, but it’s still intact. You can find the listing on Amazon, but it’s “currently unavailable.”
I was the middle child, with fairly large gaps between me and my two brothers. Mother read to all three of us, but for whatever reason, I turned out to be the major reader in the family. That became a lifelong habit, and I give full credit to my mother for instilling a love of reading and books in me.
I was buying my own books by age 7; the TG&Y dime store was a mile-and-a-half bike ride from my house. (And, yes, I often biked alone, and we’d never heard of bike helmets.) My first-purchased book was Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion. By the next year, I was on to the Hardy Boys. I read my first Agatha Christie mystery in fifth grade. One of my favorite parts of school was the monthly order with Scholastic Book Club; my mother encouraged my reading, but she put a limit on how much I could spend.
By middle school (we called it junior high), my reading was changing. I still liked mysteries. But my reading was growing more serious, reflecting assignments in my English and literature classes. A Tale of Two Cities and The Old Man and the Sea were highlights of eighth grade, and I first encountered two of my all-time favorite books in ninth grade (Great Expectations and David Copperfield). What poetry I read was what was assigned in textbooks, until my senior year in high school.
I’d driven to Lakeside Shopping Center in suburban New Orleans to buy a book assigned in senior English — Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. We could read either the abridged version or the complete text; I was one of two in my class of 30 boys who wanted to read the whole thing. By this time, I was a serious reader; no abridged version for me!
The bookstore was called Dolphin Book Shop. It was a small, quiet store, known for an emphasis on classic literature. I quickly found Don Quixote (the Signet paperback edition), and then I browsed. For reasons unknown, I found myself browsing poetry. And there, on an eye-level shelf, sat a slim volume of Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.
I’d never bought a book by Eliot before; in fact, I’d bever bought a poetry book. We had studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and portions of The Waste Land in both American and English literature classes; both of my teachers claimed Eliot for their own. I had no compelling reason to buy Four Quartets, but the price was only 95 cents and I like his poetry, so I thought, well, why not? Both the poetry book and Don Quixote were paid for, bagged by the clerk, and soon found their place on my bedroom desk.
The Don Quixote paperback was traded in long ago for a hardback edition, but I still have that little paperback edition of Four Quartets. It might have been my impressionable age, but it left a lasting mark in my mind. It also traveled with me. It went to college at LSU, it rode in my back seat to my first job at the Beaumont, Texas newspaper, it traveled with me and my wife to Houston and the three places we lived there, and it continued its journey with me to St. Louis.
Thumbing through it today, I can see many lines and verses underlined in blue ink. And I wrote notes, like one for this line in “Burnt Norton”: “Only through time time is conquered.” My note written right below it: “To conquer death, you only have to die.” Other notes cite the imagery being used and Eliot’s occasional use of Old English. And I ask myself, did a 17-year-old boy write those notes? It’s my handwriting, so the answer must be yes.
I own at least two hardcover editions of Eliot’s poetry, both of which include the full texts of Four Quartets. I don’t really need that little paperback that’s now more than 50 years old. And yet, I do. It reminds me of a bookstore I loved. It’s a signpost, and likely the first, of a lifelong enchantment with Eliot’s poetry. It ties a high school boy’s experience to that of an aging man sitting in the British Library 46 years later. It also tells me that some things do last, like a love for poetry.
I look at one note I wrote in that book in 1969, referring to a line in “The Dry Salvages”: “Is the sea the edge of the land, or is the land the edge of the sea?” I can’t help but smile.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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