It is common at our dinner table to hear a call for poetry. “Poem! Poem!” my son, John, will exclaim, turning us all toward what has become a centering event for our family. We then trade poems or, more likely, parts of poems.
John, now in kindergarten, has some lines memorized—the opening of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” is a favorite (“I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree”). Harper, four this month, often asks for prompts. “What comes after ‘fearful’?” Answer: “symmetry.” (Yes, Blake’s “The Tyger.”) My husband, Stephen, and I mine our memories or read poems off our devices. We often lean on Yeats’s “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors” (“What they undertook to do/ They brought to pass;/All things hang like a drop of dew/Upon a blade of grass”).
Sometimes it’s a somber experience, focused and reverent. Sometimes it’s souped-up, speedy, and loud. Often it evolves quickly into wordplay and joking around. Somewhere in there we start to eat.
This practice was inspired by Mira Dougherty-Johnson, a friend who also happens to be a very good librarian at a school in Southold, NY. She is married to poet Tim Wood, and told me about how they share poems at dinner with their kids. I thought we’d test it, and found we all took to it. What’s most surprising is that the kids continue to enjoy this ritual. They take pride in learning lines, and they clearly derive pleasure from the music and imagery in the language, and, of course, the surprising new words.
Their interest spurred mine, and I started seeing the poetry around me. New York City delivered with its lovely and now ongoing Poetry in Motion series of posters on the subway. I take snapshots of them to read at dinner—above is an example taken recently during my commute. These souvenirs from my day give me fodder for the developing ritual, and they inadvertently reinforce that poetry infuses our lives.
In Open the Door: How to Excite Young People about Poetry (coming this month from McSweeney’s Books and the Poetry Foundation), poet Matthea Harvey writes, “Our concerns as adults and children are not so different. We want to be surprised, transformed, challenged, delighted, understood.” Poetry did all those things for her, and can offer each of us the same.
Now, of course, poetry is everywhere because it’s National Poetry Month. A favorite part of this initiative by the Academy of American Poets is Poem in Your Pocket Day, coming April 18. I’ll be packing a folded copy of a poem by John Ashbery that’s integrated into the Irene Hixon Whitney Footbridge in Minneapolis (“And now I cannot remember how I would/have had it…”), and I’ll be happy to read it on demand.
Rebecca T. Miller