Mist, Children, Poetry and Times Past

Mist marches across the valley.
Down a long slope the mist marches.
And then up a long slope the mist marches.
from Carl Sandburg, Mist Marches Across the Valley

Last week I was in a beautiful old farmhouse on the Choptank River where I focused entirely on writing. The first few days were rainy. The river ran high. I loved the wet mornings, watching the mist rise from the river. 

Carl Sandburg talks about how mist moving across the valley carries everything with it, armies, kingdoms, guns. The rhythms of nature, like mist, are timeless, indifferent to our triumphs and failures.

When I taught in elementary school, I always looked forward to the first really misty, foggy morning. It was the perfect time to introduce Carl Sandburg’s little haiku (as he referred to it) to the children:

The fog comes on little cat feet, It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches And then moves on.  

I never asked children to memorize a poem. I invited them to join me in saying a line that stood out for them. They knew “Fog”almost immediately after I introduced it. By the end of the year, whether I was with kindergartners or fifth grade, we had a reperitorie of a couple of dozen favorites that we knew by heart and we enjoyed together. 

Fall was a great time to invite children into the Walter de la Mare’s Someone, too.  It is a perfect poem for this season. There is such a mysterious, haunting quality to it, inviting imagination. “I’m sure, sure, sure,”and “At all, at all, at all.”Were great places to join in at first. 

Some One

Some one came knocking
At my wee, small door;
Someone came knocking;
I’m sure-sure-sure;
I listened, I opened,
I looked to left and right,
But nought there was a stirring
In the still dark night;
Only the busy beetle
Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest
The screech-owl’s call,
Only the cricket whistling
While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.

We used to speculate about who came knocking and whether or not they knocked at a fairy door.  Could have been, if you have imagination.

I talk more about how I taught poetry in the classroom and the connection between peotry and children’s spirituality in an essay I wrote for the Teachers College Record a few years ago: 

Only Those Who See Take Off Their Shoes: Seeing the Classroom as a Spiritual Space,  Teachers College Record Volume 111, Number 12, December 2009, pp. 2713–2731 

The writing retreat was productive. Wet October mornings brought back memories of mist, children, poetry and times past.  

Happy National Poetry Month: Thoughts on the Joy of Learning Poetry

I suspect that my love of poetry is from my Grandpa Shannon. Grandpa loved poetry. I don’t know how many poems he knew by heart. I remember seeing him close his eyes, lean back in his rocking chair and begin Snow-Bound, by John Greenleaf Whittier: “The sun that brief December day  Rose cheerless over hills of gray,  And, darkly circled, gave at noon  A sadder light than waning moon.”

Grandpa knew all 345 lines of James Russell Lowell’s The Vision of Sir Launfaland long passages from both the Hebrew and Christian Bible. I have no idea how many poems he could recite by heart.

From the start of my teaching career, poetry was part of my classroom whether I taught first grade or fifth. We read poems, recited them, and wrote poetry. I never told children to memorize, I’d simply invite them to join me in saying a poem. I gave them a written copy of a poem after they knew it by heart. 

I remember a great moment on the way home from a field trip with first graders. A parent started, “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” Everybody joined in. When it ended, Cindy piped up immediately, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evenng, by Robert Frost.” We said it with her. Then somebody called, Beautiful Soup, by Lewis Carroll, and then, Sing Hey! For the Bath at the Close of Day, by J.R.R. Tolkien,” and Someone, by Walter de la Mare.” (I don’t actually remember the order; I just remember Cindy’s voice calling out, and what followed.) By the time we pulled up to the school, forty minutes later, we had been through our whole reperitoire.  As I was getting off of the bus, the driver said, “Lady, I don’t know what you’ve done with these children, but I’ve never seen anything like it. They can ride my bus any time!”  

Camp songs and rhymes like “Who Stole the Cookies,” are lots of fun, but children can enjoy so much more. These children did. I hope that poetry is still a part of them, as it is a part of me, and was a part of my Grandpa. Read a poem aloud until you know it by heart to celebrate National Poetry Month!