Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 and Other Poetry in my Life by
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Prompted By Poetry

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The first poem I remember from my childhood is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. I memorized it when I was young to impress my father, who was a huge history buff. Not a great poem, but I still remember some of it:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

I could probably go on a bit longer from memory, but it has fourteen stanzas. That’s a lot for any kid to recite, even one desperate for her father’s approval.

I have to credit my high school English teacher, Miss Young, with instilling a love of poetry in me. I so clearly remember her assigning our class to memorize and recite a Shakespearean sonnet. I joined the others in moaning and complaining. What’s the point of doing that? Miss Young wisely replied that once we had learned it, we would have it forever. And she was right. I can still recite Sonnet 116. In fact, here it is from memory, some 57 years later:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds 

Admit impediments. Love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds, 

Or bends with the remover to remove. 

O no. It is an ever-fixed mark 

That looks on tempests and is never shaken; 

It is the star to every wandering bark, 

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. 

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 

Within his bending sickle’s compass come; 

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 

But bears it out even to the edge of doom. 

If this be error and upon me proved, 

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Miss Young probably influenced me to major in English at the University of Michigan. So off I went with my head filled with the poetry I loved so much as a teen. I especially favored the Romantic poets. How could anyone not adore the beautiful imagery of William Wordsworth’s Daffodils:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils…

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Like Wordsworth’s, my heart also “leapt up when I beheld a rainbow in the sky.” I thrilled to William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger burning bright” and was wowed by Lord Byron’s description of his love…

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Shelley’s Ozymandias was another beloved poem. I imagined the sand in which “half sunk, a shattered visage lies,” and the admired the wise sculptor whose hand mocked the great king Ozymandias by writing on the pedestal of his statue that we should look at all he created and despair. When I read the last lines of the poem, I pondered the transient nature of power and fame:

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Of course, English was a highly impractical major, so I also earned a teaching certificate to “fall back on,” as my mother recommended. And fall back on it I did, teaching high school English from 1967 to 1971. As you may recall, those were turbulent years in which students questioned the relevance of poets like Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Donne, Y.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, John Milton, Carl Sandburg, Chaucer, Robert Burns, Emily Bronte, and Dylan Thomas to name a few. The war in Vietnam was threatening to swallow up their lives, so no, my students didn’t care much about iambic pentameter and other rhythms or whether the rhyme schemes were ABBA or ABAB.  Figures of speech (remember alliteration, assonance, consonance, personification, metaphor, and simile?) or the imagery and meaning of those great poets bored them to tears. There was no way I could pull a Miss Young and make them memorize a Shakespearean sonnet. I couldn’t even get them to read one.

Being a newbie teacher, I concluded it would be easier to meet them where they were at and then try to teach them about the elements of poetry. Thus, we turned to song lyrics of Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and a host of other popular singer/songwriters of that era. I remember using Sounds of Silence extensively to teach my poetry unit. Yes, I know, not the same as a Shakespearean sonnet, but at least my students were willing to think and learn.

After I stopped teaching English and had three kids, my love for poetry morphed into Shel Silverstein, A.A. Milne, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Lewis Carrol, and assorted nursery rhymes. They loved Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and I loved to read to my children. I defaulted to good old Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride as well. When the kids grew up, I transferred my love of children’s poetry to my career in early childhood education.

Then I retired and poetry dropped out of my life. I was writing a book, learning to blog, and reading more than ever. Just not poetry. But writing this prompted me to remember how much poetry meant to me over the years and to rediscover the poetry written in my heart.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Tags: poetry, teaching poetry, children's poetry

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, as a Theatre major who became certified to teach high school speech and English, I think I read almost as many poems as you did (and had to do a Shakespeare monologue in my advanced speech class).

    I was chosen by my elementary school in 5th grade to take an acting class at the public broadcast station (then in its very early days) in downtown Detroit. At the end, we did a little talent audtion to get into radio or TV shows. Though I was a good singer, I chose to recite Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing”, which was probably a silly choice, but I really liked the poem.

    My older son had to do a poetry unit in 8th grade. I realized we didn’t have any poetry books in the house, so I bought many anthologies, which included so many wonderful and classic poems (most of the ones you mention) and I still enjoy going back to them.

    And so many of the great ones have been set to music and I’ve sung them throughout the years like “The Road Not Taken” and “She Walks in Beauty”, so they take on a whole new meaning, since I have a melody in my head when I think of them.

    My husband tells the story of doing a whole paper on the imagery of “Sounds of Silence”, so he was right there with your class on that one, and of course, Bob Dylan in now a Nobel Laureate in Literature, so you were ahead of your time, but totally worthy.

    Thank you for great thoughts on some of the great poets we all grew up with.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Betsy, I’m so glad you understood where I was coming from in my post. For some reason, I struggled with writing it. Poetry has meant many different things to me throughout my life. I have to figure out where it fits now, as I don’t read it very much these days.

  2. Marian says:

    Laurie, I really related to “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” because that was the first poem I recited from memory as well. Your insight into teaching poetry during the Vietnam era was great–I can now see this scenario in a new light. Like your experience, poetry was minimized in most of my early and mid-adult life in favor of prose, but now I am coming back to both reading and writing it, and finding new joy in the experience.

  3. John Zussman says:

    Your story made me realize that everyone loves poetry—although sometimes we call it something else. In the ’60s we called it folk music, and as you say, Dylan and Cohen and Simon were our muses. Now it’s rap and hip-hop, which is harder for me to relate to, but now and then I catch a poetry slam on TV that just blows me away. As for Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 will forever be a classic—an exquisite expression of a sentiment that will never go out of style. I wish that, like you, I had memorized it, but there’s always The Google.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I was thinking of adding a poetry slam to this piece, but it was already too long. Recently watched America to Me, an excellent documentary about Oak Park-River Forest High School on Starz. It featured a poetry slam, which was totally engrossing. Although, like you, I find it harder to relate to rap (although I enjoy hip-hop dance), I also thank goodness for the Google machine. It’s getting harder to memorize things these days!

  4. You may have struggled to gather your thoughts on poetry, Laurie but you did a helluva job, a personal survey, a poetry 101 if you will. Thanks for this lyrical recollection of how poetry has twined through your life.

  5. Suzy says:

    Laurie, this is a terrific story! If you struggled with it, it certainly doesn’t show. I love your journey from Paul Revere to the marriage of true minds and then all the other lovely poems that followed. And getting your students engaged through song lyrics was brilliant! Glad this prompt caused you to rediscover the poetry written in your heart (and what a great phrase that is!).

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I thank you, Suzy, for that quote by Ferlinghetti. Even though we decided not to use it in the prompt, it spoke to me and helped me articulate how I feel about poetry. I will always be thankful to my high school English teacher for writing Sonnet 116 in my heart. It has actually come in useful to recall it on several occasions.

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