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Modern Family: A Reason for Rhyme

“A Poem a Day for the Month of May” is a key premise and promise in the most recent newsletter from Junoon, a community arts initiative in Mumbai. To quote the group: “We read a delightful article, which shared that Dame Judi Dench, as a child, would be woken up by her father who’d come upstairs each morning and wake me with verse. Ever since, she learns a poem a day as a personal labour of love. It is something we’ve thought of trying. We invite you to taste language with us, from contemporary Indian poetry to old ghazals, from rap to odes and sonnets, whatever makes your heart sing.”

I think how this matches what my fourth-grade teacher never tired of telling the class. “Whatever makes your heart sing within, sounds better sung out,” she’d say, urging us to enjoy a poem every week with family and friends. Encouraged to write our own, too, I dashed off enough ditties for Ms. Valladares to remark in my end-of-term report card: “Don’t give up your poetic fancies.”

I didn’t; I couldn’t. Not when I grew up surrounded by shelves groaning with books of verse, centuries-old to contemporary. The impact of this came to me quietly once, as I visited the serene Lake District home of William Wordsworth. On a visit to Dove Cottage, I gasped to see, among other treasures, the original draft of The Prelude. The manuscript glowed before my eyes as I whispered. “It was an act of stealth and troubled pleasure…” The cadenced loveliness of that line still gives me goose bumps, with the sweet-sharp stab of memory.

One of the happiest tasks of my childhood was reading aloud to an uncle I dearly loved. Dr Phiroze Dustoor, an author and once head of the English Literature department of Allahabad University, lived a while with us. He turned tragically blind as he aged, and it broke my heart to hear him talk of being terrified that he’d forget his favourite poems by the Romantics. Reading for him repeatedly from gilt-bound texts, I managed to memorise whole tracts that have stayed with me. From lyrical impressions of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Coleridge’s epic Kubla Khan, to the nonsense limericks of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, it was inspired and inspiring. Incidentally, Lear and Carroll have been voted the all-time kings of poems for kids, by J. Patrick Lewis, a former United States’ Children’s Poet Laureate. “No one has written better poetry since them,” he has sweepingly declared.

Though they did go through phases of devouring Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein’s poems for kids, and, later, Vikram Seth’s wise wit, my children haven’t exactly made poetry a passion. Strange, because what is a family singing together if not celebrating verse in tune? And, God knows, we’ve done plenty of that! I once interviewed Gieve Patel, who compiled Poetry with Young People, a collection of verse by the 12- to 16-year-olds he taught at Rishi Valley School near Bangalore. Patel, a painter-poet himself, was reassuring when I worried that my children did not share my appreciation for verse: “We do what we can,” he said. “For those who take to it, poetry is the most democratic of the arts. Though they may not all show it to anyone, human beings don’t feel debarred from expressing deep emotions in verse.” Patel said he finds children take more to unstructured, free verse, rather than traditional rhyming genres. Faced with middle school students new to nuance, he acquainted them with Wang Wei’s verse, which he said “showed suggestion is stronger than bland statement in poetry.”

Urged to follow their individual voices, shun clichés and draw inspiration from familiar territory, kids give vent to pet peeves in Patel’s anthology of 134 poems. There is peer pressure (‘I stared at myself in the mirror / wanting to free myself’), disliked teachers (‘I have a teacher / with serrated features … there’s hypocrisy / even in her walk’), pesky sisters (‘She seems to have evolved into a being with a telephone fused to her ear’) and general angst (‘It’s only when you’re standing on the top of the world / the ground starts crumbling beneath your feet’). Parents, too, are often addressed in these poems, and the verse sometimes takes a turn toward the verbally violent as young emotions spill across the page.

Personal outpouring and creative catharsis apart, why is poetry important? Let’s hear it again from J. Patrick Lewis, an economics professor before he discovered the joys of poetry at 40: “Poetry is essential for children because it is ‘the best words in the best order’. The rhythm helps children develop a love for language. Once kids begin flexing their writing muscles, poetry can spark their creativity and let their imaginations soar. You read newspapers and magazines all you want, nowhere else are you going to find words taken to such beautiful and sometimes absurd extremes as in poetry. Children will not gravitate to poetry; poetry must be brought to them. Fill your home with as many books and kinds of poetry as you are able.”

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