Book Power by Tanya Mendonsa
What I propose, readers, is to take you on a journey backwards, to those happy days when a poem illuminated the universe, or to unhappy days transformed by a story that took you into another world.
This was originally written for National Children’s Book Week in 1969 – nearly two decades after Brooks, at only twenty-three, became the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize.
No-one in this world is rich enough to buy their own childhood and youth back, but the poems and stories we read as children recreate those moments at no cost, as I recalled in one of my poems :
The first poem I remember by heart is one read to us seven year olds in class by our teacher, a stout, motherly lady, who pronounced each word as if it were a pearl ;
What I grasped from that poem were the colours and images, so that, as I grew to be a painter and a poet, I always saw a poem in my mind as a
picture ; a moving picture, in every sense of the word.
As children, most of the poems and stories we loved, immediately and without warning carried us into the lives of people we had never known, but who became as familiar to us as our families…so…here they come !
The King asked
the Queen, and
the Queen asked
the Dairymaid :
“Could we have some butter for
the royal slice of bread?”
The Queen asked
I’ll go and tell
Before she goes to bed.”
I had a little nut-tree, nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
and a golden pear;
The King of Spain’s daughter
came to visit me,
And all for the sake of
my little nut-tree.
I skipped over water,
I danced over sea,
And all the birds in the air
Couldn’t catch me.
Allie, call the birds in,
The birds from the sky !
Allie calls, Allie sings,
Down they all fly
Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, Goblin. Why do you stare at them ?
Give them me.
Give them me. Give them me.
I will howl in a deep lagoon
For your green glass beads, I love them so.
Give them me. Give them me.
The next verse, of course, we continue to recite wistfully, decades later, still hoping it will come true :
In the stories read to us, or which we read ourselves, we learned of far-off lands we would probably never see but which lived on in our memories :
Do you need a cabin boy,
Ship in the harbour ?
Do you need a cabin boy,
Ship on the sea ?
I want to go to Africa,
India and China;
So if you’re off to foreign parts,
Please take me !
When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land
Took me by the hand.
I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school –
The dusty streets did rule.
I walked home with a gold dark boy
And never a word I’d say,
Had taken my speech away :
The poems and stories we loved were also full of animals :
Jellicle Cats come out to-night
Jellicle Cats come one come all :
The Jellicle Moon is shining bright - Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.
Later, they arrive in the land of the Bong-tree, where Piggy-wig sells them the ring in his nose; they get married by the Turkey who lives on the hill and, ever after, hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, dance by the light of the moon.
In the immortal “ Through the Looking Glass”, there are so many animals and stories and poems it is difficult to choose a favourite, but the Walrus and the Carpenter enticing the poor oysters to take a walk on the beach is a gem :
“ The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“ To talk of many things :
of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax-
of cabbages – and kings –
And why the sea is boiling hot –
And whether pigs have wings”
“ O Oysters, said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run !
Shall we be trotting home again ? “
But answer came there none –
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one !
As we grew older, there were the immortal “ cockroach “ verses, written in New York, by archy the cockroach, who butts the typewriter keys with his head ( no caps or punctuation ) and glorifies his friend Mehitabel, the alley cat, who was Queen Cleopatra in a former incarnation :
I have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday scepters and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today I herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
Then there were the much loved story-poems, withp their hypnotic rhythms, the best known of which are probably “ The Pied Piper of Hamelin “ and
“ Hiawatha “…
Here is the baby Hiawatha being rocked in his bark cradle by his grandmother Nokomis, who later teaches him all the legends of the birds and the beasts as he grows to manhood…..
By the shores of Gitche Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis,
Dark behind it rose the forest
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
And here comes the Pied Piper, in his coat that is half red and half yellow,
to save the townspeople of Hamelin from their plague of rats…..
Into the street the Piper stept,
Smiling first a little smile,
As if he knew what magic slept
In his quiet pipe the while;
Then, like a musical adept,
To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled,
And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled,
Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled;
And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
You heard as if an army muttered;
And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
Families by tens and dozens,
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives —
Followed the Piper for their lives.
From street to street he piped advancing,
And step for step they followed dancing,
Until they came to the river Weser
Wherein all plunged and perished!
— Save one who, stout as Julius Caesar,
Swam across ………
We read things we do not understand, when we are children, but they tapestry our minds : legends of Baba Yar, the witch from the frozen north, the stories of Camelot and the Round Table, stories from the Mahabharata, with its immense cast of characters, and all the children and people in the nursery rhymes.
Of course, it has never been so important as it is now, in the 21st century, for children to discover the worlds we knew so well.
Roald Dahl wrote of TV , in “ Charlie and the Chocolate Factory “ :
IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD !
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD !
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND !
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND !
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE !
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE !
HE CANNOT THINK – HE ONLY SEES !
Well, how to prevent this state of affairs ? Why,
THEY…..USED…. TO…. READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
TO READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks !
One half their lives was reading books !
There are many stories and poems we did not understand as children, but they stayed with us, echoed in the memory, because they were so beautiful :
I am the Prince
I am the lowly
I am the damned
I am the holy.
My hands are ten knives.
I am the dove
Whose wings are murder.
My name is love.
As children nurtured on books move into their teens, they begin to choose their own reading. A wonderful way of beginning on contemporary verse is
“The Puffin Book of Modern Children’s Verse”
edited by Brian Patten
If any of us later became a writer or a poet, what we read or heard as children becomes the soil that nourishes us as we grow into our minds and hearts later and remember our dreams, which we dreamed after being gentled to sleep by that best-beloved of lullabies :
Nini, baba, nini,
Makhan, roti, chini,
Makhan roti hogaya,
Hamara baba sogaya