“you would die, or be happy forever”

by Jessie Lynn McMains

A couple months ago, I made a post on Facebook:

What was the poem or poems that first made you really say WOW? The poems that felt like spells or prayers to you? The ones that felt like portrals to Elsewhere? The ones that gave you chills, made you cry, made you laugh? The ones that made you realize poetry was something you needed in your life?

If you could give me the titles of those poems and/or links to them, as well as one-three sentences about what first captured you about them/what you love(d) about them/etc., that would be great!

I added: I’m specifically looking for poems you fell in love with as a child or teenager as opposed to an adult.

I hoped to get dozens, if not hundreds, of responses; enough that I could come up with a theory as to the kinds of poems we love as children, and why we love them. It did not work out that way. Whether people didn’t see the post because the algorithm sucks, or saw it and didn’t respond, I received fewer than ten responses. And, of the responses I received, a couple people only included the names of poems they’d loved—without any commentary as to why they’d loved them.

Not counting my own, which was what had inspired me to make the Facebook post in the first place, I received only six usable responses. That’s not a large enough sample group for me to form any kind of real thesis. Not to mention, all the respondents chose different poems, and had different reasons for choosing them. Of course, if more people had responded, it is possible that the answers would have been even more disparate.


When thinking of the poems which made me fall in love with poetry as a child, the two that popped into my head were W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child” and e.e. cummings’ “maggie and milly and molly and may.” (I’ve since realized that there were other poems I loved before I’d ever encountered those two, but those are the first two I remember loving.)

I discovered “maggie and milly” in a book called Imaginary Gardens, a children’s anthology which paired poetry with visual art. I’m not sure where I discovered “The Stolen Child,” or if my discovery of it came before or after “maggie and milly.” But it doesn’t really matter which poem came first, or exactly how old I was when I first read them, or where I discovered “The Stolen Child.” I remember the most important thing—how it felt when I discovered them.

Those were the first two poems which made my heart race, my extremities tingle; the first two which made me feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off. “maggie and milly and molly and may” and “The Stolen Child” were the first two poems which stopped me in my tracks, made me wonder what I’d just experienced, what had just happened, made me want to read them again, and again, and again.

Both poems acted, for me, as portals to Elsewhere. In different ways, they’re both about stepping outside the mundane world of daily life, and entering someplace different. In “maggie and milly,” even the order in which the words are arranged adds to the effect of it taking place somewhere not quite real, somewhere surreal: 

milly befriended a stranded star / whose rays five languid fingers were

What if cummings had written it as: milly befriended a stranded star / whose rays were five languid fingers? It’s not only that the rhyme would disappear, but that the image would suddenly become much more prosaic, and duller.

“The Stolen Child” is, literally, about a child leaving the mundane world of humans and entering the land of Faerie. It is written in a much more straightforward manner than “maggie and milly and molly and may,” but even without any cummings-esque linguistic oddities, it is thrilling and beautiful. It is a folk ballad, really—though Yeats didn’t break the stanzas into the traditional quatrains, each stanza contains three sets of rhymed quatrains—and its lilting sing-song rhyme scheme gives it a forward motion. And that refrain, that delicious refrain. I was a weird kid, sometimes half-convinced I was a changeling (or at least I half-wished I was). I daydreamed often of my faerie kin coming to rescue me from the world of humans. When I felt particularly lonesome or sad, I’d recite “The Stolen Child’s” refrain aloud, like a spell, or a prayer:

Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

When considering my own selections alongside those of the other respondents, I hoped to find an overarching theme, or style, which would tie our youthful favorites together. At first I thought it might be rhyme. Both “The Stolen Child” and “maggie and milly” rhyme. Three of the other respondents mentioned Shel Silverstein as their introduction to poetry. (And two of those specifically mentioned his poem “Sick,” because what kid doesn’t relate to faking illness to get out of school?) Other rhyming poems mentioned were: Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Harry Behn’s “Hallowe’en Poem,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43,” and “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks.

But there were several poems mentioned that do not rhyme: “she being brand new” by e.e. cummings, “The Pope’s Penis” by Sharon Olds, and the entirety of Richard Brautigan’s collection Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork.

Then, I thought it might be some sort of magical or fantastical subject matter: “The Stolen Child” and “maggie and milly and molly and may” fall into that category, as do “Jabberwocky,” Shel Silverstein’s “Magic,” “Hallowe’en Poem,” and “The Unicorn” by Madeleine L’Engle (a poem which I am unable to find anywhere online). But that doesn’t explain all the other poems mentioned, which have nothing to do with magic or fantasy.

The respondents’ reasons for choosing their poems were all over the map. On “Porphyria’s Lover:” “[it] was startling and interesting, like watching documentaries on serial killers before that was a thing.” On “Hallowe’en Poem:” “…it felt like a spell, pure autumn magic.” On Richard Brautigan’s Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork: “I was obsessed with it as a little kid, did not get the grown-up jokes in the poems and brought lots of laughter to the adult turkey table by reciting them.” On “The Unicorn:” “L’Engle showed me the mysteries that made me fall in love with it in sixth grade, which is when I count my real relationship with poetry as having started.”

There was no obvious connection between the poems chosen, or the reasons why, on which I could base a theory. But managed to find a through-line, anyway. Certain things jumped out at me from the responses: how these poems were startling and interesting, or like a spell. Or something that shows (you) the mysteries, which a child could be obsessed with even without understanding all the grown-up subtext. I thought more about “The Stolen Child” and “maggie and milly,” and about “Jabberwocky,” and—

A lot of grown-ups dislike poetry because they think they don’t get it. This is, in part, because of the way it’s taught in high school and college, and the way it’s talked about everywhere. More so than with (most) prose, we are made to feel like poetry is something your average person just won’t understand—whether because of esoteric subject matter, word choice, strange punctuation, etc. We’re taught that even the poems that seem relatively straightforward and plain-spoken are hiding something from us, that there’s some deeper meaning behind the words that we have to look for and interpret—because if we don’t, we won’t ‘get’ the poem. No wonder your average person doesn’t want to even try and read poetry—they’ve already been set up to believe they’ll fail.

But children do not have this problem, which is why their love of poetry can be sparked by just about any poem—rhymed or not, meant for children or not. As children, we don’t care if we don’t ‘get’ a poem. Or, rather, we trust implicitly that we do get it. When I first read “maggie and milly and molly and may,” I encountered the line:

may came home with a smooth round stone / as small as a world and as large as alone.

Though that’s an unusual image—a stone that’s both small and large, whose largeness is compared to an abstract concept—I had no trouble understanding and accepting it. Because yes, something can contain two opposite ideas at the same time, and the world is small, and aloneness is large.

And what about “Jabberwocky?” Many of the words in that poem are made up. If you’d asked me as a child what ‘vorpal’ or ‘manxome’ or ‘whiffling’ meant, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you—but I knew. I knew, but at the same time—I didn’t need to know. I didn’t need a literal translation of every word Lewis Carroll invented in order to delight in the poem.


Poet Matthew Zapruder, who argues that understanding poetry is more straightforward than we think, writes: In a poem, language remains itself yet is also made to feel different, even sacred, like a spell. How this happens is the mystery of each poem, and maybe its deepest meaning.

One of my favorite poems—not a beloved poem from childhood; I discovered it in my twenties—is Lisel Mueller’s “Sometimes, When the Light.” It is about childhood, or rather the memory of childhood, but for me, it says something about the way poetry works, as well:

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind the wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

This, I believe, is what the poems we fell in love with as children were: light, striking us at odd angles, and pulling us toward the mystery. We knew that something was going on behind the wall, but we did not have to know exactly what it was. It was enough to know it was there. And I believe that any poem worth its salt can be that, for anyone, if they are open to it. There will always be something going on behind the words, between the lines, of a poem. You can imagine what it is, but you don’t need to know. It’s enough to know that something is there, so marvelous and dangerous / that if you crawled through and saw, / you would die, or be happy forever.


ENDNOTES

  • Thanks to everyone who responded to my initial post. I kept you all anonymous because I wasn’t sure if you wanted your names in here.
  • Imaginary Gardens was the place where I first encountered many poets and artists who would later become my favorites. I had almost forgotten about the book’s existence until earlier this year, when I read Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X. There was a section about Sargent’s painting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” and I remembered that painting had been on the cover of Imaginary Gardens.
  • When someone else mentioned “Jabberwocky,” I realized that I had loved that poem prior to my discovery of “The Stolen Child” and “maggie and milly.” In fact, I still love it so much that in my twenties I got tattoos of a few images from the Joel Stewart-illustrated version. And I can still recite it from memory.
  • What I said above, re: “As children, we don’t care if we don’t ‘get’ a poem.” Maybe kids are just better at that whole Keatsian Negative Capability thing. That is, they’re more “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
  • I suppose I’d classify “Sometimes, When the Light” as an ars poetica, whether Mueller intended it as such or not. Funnily enough, that Imaginary Gardens anthology is named after a line from another poet’s (intended) ars poetica—Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” in which she suggests that a poets’ job is to present to us “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”

One Comment Add yours

  1. Olivia says:

    Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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