First Words, First Poems

Among my pile of library books on poetry is one called The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell.

Today I jumped in to the first exercise:

Try to recall a very early experience you had of reading or hearing language that interested or excited or confused or enlightened you… write about that experience, trying to describe what about the text got to you and why.

I only loosely followed this prompt. I found myself wanting to go back to an idea I’d started to explore last year while reading an essay by Seamus Heaney in which he traced some of his early experiences of language.

One idea led to another and I drifted into talking about early experiences of poetry rather than just early experiences of language. I might like to come back to this prompt at some future time and dig in again– I think actually the Heaney might have been about the metaphor of digging.

* * *

Mairsy doats and dozy doats and little lambs a-divy, a kiddle-d-divy too, wouldn’t you?

My mom sang nonsense syllables and I delighted in how they resolved into meaningful words in the next verse:

Now if this sounds queer and funny to your ear and a little bit jumbled and jivy, sing: mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.

I loved the mouth-feel of the quick patter. I loved the puzzle and never got tired of the way the verse presented first the nonsense and then the translation. I loved my mom singing to me as she brushed my hair. I loved that I felt it was our song long before I knew of Louis Armstrong and then I loved it even more because I also loved Louis. Or did I love him because of the song?

I also loved the parade of animals: mares, does, lambs, kids… and their foods oats and ivy. It all fit together so nicely, such fun.

I still love nonsense and verbal puzzles. I love lists and music and meanings that only come clear over time and with a little explication. I love the way they fool the ear and tickle the tongue and that grownups can be silly, even very serious grown ups like my Mom and Mr Louis Armstrong.

Much of my childhood is vague, hard to recall, but I always return to this place of the songs my mom sang when she was brushing my hair. Mairsy Dotes and Billy Boy… those are songs I remember puzzling over and singing and they sound like my mom.

Where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Where have you been, charming Billy?
I have been to see my wife
She’s the apple of my eye
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.

I puzzled over this one in part because Billy is a boy and his wife is a too young to leave her mother… but marriage is an institution for adults, not children. I couldn’t have phrased it like that, but I think that was part of the puzzle. How can people so young be married? How can you be married and still live with your parents?

And what on earth does it mean for someone to be the apple of your eye? I puzzled over that years later when I encountered it again in the Bible. It sent me on a rabbit trail seeking out the Hebrew word so I could understand the literal meaning of the metaphor. I found an answer, somewhat, but my curiosity wasn’t fully satisfied. I still want to really understand why apple and eye?

It had to do with literally the apple being the pupil of the eye… and in a sandy desert environment, protecting one’s eyes. But I still have never quite been satisfied about the ‘apple’ part.

* * *

My first poems were nursery rhymes and I still love them. Not one has preeminence over the others, they all jostle around in my head and come out at random times. Being a mother has been supremely satisfying because now I can recite them at will and at length to a captive audience— they’re handy for distracting and redirecting bored child: I’ll recite a line except for the last word and the child will fill it in. And then eventually we can recite them together.

But even as a single young adult I still loved my nursery rhymes. I never really gave them up or abandoned them in the nursery, they’ve always been my companions, old friends along for the journey.

Wee Willie Winkie, Little Boy Blue, Jack and Jill, Jack be nimble, Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, Humpty Dumpty, Georgie Porgie, Little Miss Muffet, Mary Mary Quite Contrary and Mary who had a lamb, the blind mice and the mice who ran up the clock, the pussy cat under the queen’s chair, the man going to St Ives. Banbury cross and hot cross buns and miles to Babylon and London Bridge falling down.

As I was going to St Ives is fun because it’s a puzzle. So are Humpty Dumpty and Round and Round and round the rugged rock.

But there are plenty of other puzzles in the rhymes to busy the brain: How do the places in nursery rhymes map onto real places on the map? Why does Peter put his wife in a pumpkin? Why does the cat go to look at the queen? Why does Mary put silver bells in her garden? What are cockle shells? And the nonsense language itself is something for an idle brain to puzzle over.

The rhymes and rhythms are satisfying. The names are familiar and strange at the same time. I’ve maybe spent more time thinking on nursery rhymes than a grown woman should. But I’m hardly alone.

I loved the way Orwell uses nursery rhymes in 1942 and Huxley uses them in Brave New World. What is it about dystopia that takes writers back to the nursery? I think there’s probably an interesting essay there.

So many novels have borrowed titles from nursery rhymes, they are a refrain that haunts us. And it seems that they are no longer universal. Once it was probably not even worth remarking on that one’s first poems were nursery rhymes, but so many people I know actually do not have nursery rhymes memorized. Not all kids are growing up learning them anymore, a common heritage is being lost. And as Mary Oliver points out, a first door into poetry is shutting as people don’t learn them anymore.

* * *

The first poem I remember memorizing and reciting— as opposed to the nursery rhymes which were always kind of just there— is Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell
And after that the dark
And may there be no sadness of farewell
When I embark

For though from out our bourne of time and place
The flood may bear me far
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

I love the way the poem breaks into two halves that mirror each other. I love the rhythm of it and the firm rhyme scheme. I was enchanted with the sound of this poem long before I fully understood that it was about death. And yet it was one of my early intimations of mortality. I understood the heavy sadness and lightness, the sadness that the people staying behind felt and the lightness with which the speaker faced the prospect of his own death. I suppose it is also for me a touchstone on which I hang my hope for heaven, one of the reasons that death doesn’t scare me. I’ve been reciting this poem for decades and it always brings me comfort. When I read about how St Elizabeth Ann Seton would talk about heaven, how she looked forward to it, I felt that I’d found a kindred soul: she knows, she knows the feeling in Tennyson— I didn’t think that consciously until just this moment, but I think the Tennyson was deeply a part of me and her words found that part of me and rhymed with it, echoing with a familiar recognition.

And maybe my fascination with sea stories and sailing ships also finds its source here.

And there’s another poem that also speaks of death and sailing together, from Robert Lewis Stevenson:


Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

I think I learned this one at a later date, and I didn’t learn it as perfectly as the Tennyson, but it’s a near neighbor in the halls of my memory.

I love the rhyme scheme: sky, lie, die all in rapid succession. And then the orphan will. Then another three rhymes: me, be, see. And then the resolution of hill. The long i sounds and then the long e sounds, resolved by the rhyme with the short i. And the first and third lines have long i sound in the middle, a sort of near rhyme. And in the second stanza, you get be… me, he… be… sea. All those long e sounds. And the near rhyme of sailor and hunter. And there’s the delight of the verb “grave” meaning to carve but also this verse being literally carved on a stone to be set on a grave, repeating the word from the first stanza—a little play on words.

2 Responses to First Words, First Poems

  1. Zina March 12, 2019 at 7:06 am #

    Nursery rhymes make great first poems and prime us to remember anything at all really. I always found certain prayers to make like poetry — in the rhythm and imagery they sometimes evoke. (I had a blog post rolling around in my head for a while… I have not had time to write it.)

    But really I only started memorizing poetry in high school and that was rather begrudgingly. I never liked poetry and finding people who have a true love of verse is a real novelty to me. I am one of the legions of people who were primed to despise poetry via our education system. I went to Catholic school, and I was also made to study poetry in college. I am only now in my 40’s discovering the beauty of verse through meeting you and Kate through Facebook. If it were not for that I probably would still hate it all — save the few poets I liked: Dickinson, Whitman, Thomas, and Pope.

    • Melanie Bettinelli March 13, 2019 at 12:29 am #

      Ooh I could write at length about prayers as poems. I did write something once about the poetry of the psalms, but I didn’t really say what I was trying to say, I think.

      I’m always sad and angry when I meet people who were taught to dislike poetry by schools. And it’s such a common experience, though everyone probably has a specific moment that triggered it– or is it one moment or just a series of moments creating a general dread and anxiety? I don’t know how I escaped unscathed. School did teach me to hate Jane Austen for a time– fortunately I had a college professor who undid that damage. But how many people learn to hate an author or a genre or to hate reading altogether? It makes me so impassioned to think what a difference teachers can make– how they shape– so often inadvertently– the interior life of a person.

      It’s interesting that you mention Pope. He came up in another context just a day or two ago and I realized I’ve never actually read much Pope. I hardly know him.

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