For me this was the Childcraft book. This is where I found the best poems to memorize. This volume was the reason I bought an old set of the encyclopedias. To me these first two volumes were nourishing and homey, like a good spaghetti casserole. (Substitute tater tot hotdish if you live in Minnesota.)
Poems for Everyday
Isn’t it great to think that there are everyday poems, like Melmac dishes, that you can recite or read at almost any time? No special occasion necessary.
The illustrations above and below are by Meg Wohberg who illustrated advertisements for baby-care products in the 1930’s and then worked on over 70 children’s books in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. So her work might look familiar to people of a certain age and even younger.
I read these poems without concern for their messages. I’d read “When Young Melissa Sweeps” and want to go grab a broom. I don’t think I ever did it though, being a rather lazy child. But I’m sure some of my understanding of what it meant to be a girl came from these poems.
Yet Gentle Will the Griffin Be
(What Grandpa Told the Children)
The moon? It is a griffin’s egg,
Hatching tomorrow night.
And how the little boys will watch
With shouting and delight
To see him break the shell and stretch
And creep across the sky.
The boys will laugh. The little girls,
I fear, may hide and cry.
Yet gentle will the griffin be,
Most decorous and fat,
And walk up to the Milky Way
And lap it like a cat.
- Vichel Lindsay
So I learned how the world saw little girls but I learned a few vocabulary words, too.
Poems introduced me to elements of culture I never experienced myself. There were poems about the circus, the popcorn man, streetcars, and the sea. There was even one about telegraphs — a little outdated for the 1961 edition of Childcraft — but I knew what telegraphs were because I watched Westerns on TV.
I think everyone my age remembers a bit of such poems as “When the Frost Is on the Pumpkin.” Many of us probably wondered what a shock of corn was when we’d read the poem in school in the fall. I’m sure that there’s something more contemporary that has replaced these poems. I know that I never read or heard most of the poems that my father learned in school and would recite to me on long drives. Classic poems like James Whitcomb Riley’s provide a shared experience with other Americans my age.
This was the section where I found the best poems for memorizing. These are the poems I can still recite. I was disappointed that one of my favorite poems had no author noted. It must be a “traditional” poem, although I’ve never heard anyone but my sister or me recite it. I love the romanticism and surprise ending.
A Farmer’s Boy
They strolled down the lane together,
The sky was studded with stars.
They reached the gate in silence,
And he lifted down the bars.
She neither smiled or thanked him
Because she knew not how;
For he was just a farmer’s boy
And she was a Jersey cow!
I remember my father bringing home a reel-to-reel tape deck and recording that poem on it. Mom recorded the poem “Eletelephony” which I thought was hilarious. Both the poem and Mom’s voice coming out of a machine sent me into fits of giggles.
The famous “Purple Cow” poem is also in this collection. I’m so sorry it caused Gelett Burgess, the author, so much grief.
Storytelling and Ballads
Sometimes the illustrations really made the poem. That was the case for “The Potatoes Dance,” I thought. The illustrator’s taters were so much better than dull old Mr. Potato Head. Samuel Armstrong gave those spuds life. I had dreams about those potatoes. The burnt matchstick legs scared me.
In my previous post I told you that my sister and I had competitions for who could memorize more poems. Since she was eight years older, I had a real challenge. I have a fond memory of sitting in the back of the neighbor’s station wagon waiting for fireworks to begin and my sister telling us a story she made up about Squidgicum-Squees. She got the idea from “The Raggedy Man” which was too long for me to memorize. It took up two entire pages!
I was talking with my younger husband about how exciting it’s been to re-read all these poems. I then discovered that he had never heard of The Song of Hiawatha. How can a man who frequently drives Hiawatha Avenue, has been to both Gitche Gumee and Nokomis lakes, has probably walked past the Longfellow House at Minnehaha Park, not know this poem? I thought all native Minnesotans would have been forced to read it at some time or other. I guess not. Or not any more.
After I read him the poem tonight I might try to memorize The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. It should be a task made easier by Loreena McKennitt’s rendition as a song, although she leaves out several verses. Her song makes me cry. The poem is just lyrically satisfying and a good Gothic tale.
I’ll end with another favorite from the humorous poems section.
A New Song to Sing about Jonathan Bing
O jonathan Bing, O Bingathon Jon
Forgets where he’s going an thinks he has gone.
He wears his false teeth on the top of his head,
And always stands up when he’s sleeping in bed.
O Jonathon Bing has a curious way
Of trying to walk into yesterday.
“If I end with my breakfast and start with my tea,
I ought to be able to do it,” says he.
O Jonathan Bing is a miser, they say,
For he likes to save trouble and put it away.
“If I never get up in the morning,” he said,
“I shall save all the trouble of going to bed!”
“O Jonathan Bing! What a way to behave!
And what do you do with the trouble you save?””
“I wrap it up neatly and send it by post
To my friend and relations who need it the most.”
- Beatrice Curtis Brown
I always found it interesting that Jonathan Bing and Old Father William looked like the same man. They were drawn by someone with the initials of RL. For some reason Childcraft didn’t give credits for illustrations.
Thank you for letting me share these with you. It’s been so much fun for me. Although, It does make me feel really old. And I’ve gone a little bit crazy trying to decide which poems are epic enough to warrant italics instead of quotes for their titles.