One of the five books I worked on in 2011 was transcription and footnoting of my paternal grandmother's notebook, wherein she entered, between 1884 and 1894, the poetry she liked.
This notebook of my grandmother's gave rise to much thought about poetry and also about education, and whether an ancestor's choice of poetry can give some entry into her mental landscape.
I write now of the impact working on my grandmother's notebook has had on my own mental landscape.
She was a girl of fifteen in a country village in England when she started the notebook; a young mother of two in the industrial city of Birmingham when she filled it. I don't know if she continued with other notebooks thereafter; no others have come down in the family, just this one - to her son my father, then to his eldest child, my sister Mary, who lent it to me.
My daughter undertook to transcribe the poetry into the computer. She had a difficult time of it, not from the quality of the handwriting which was fully legible if not quite copperplate. Her difficulty lay in the content, which was of Victorian sentimentality and of Quaker sensibility. My grandmother was a birthright Quaker, brought up in a Quaker home where there was no music, no decoration of home or person, no card games. Meeting (that is, church) attendance twice a day on Sundays and once on Wednesdays. Entertainment was what could be made at home - word games and all manner of parlor games. Chess, checkers, drawing, serious conversation, carefully selected books, including books of poetry, especially that of Wordsworth and Longfellow, and Whittier, himself a Quaker. Poetry was read quietly or aloud; memorized poetry was recited. Memorization of poetry was expected not only at school but also at home. My grandparents lived across the garden in the Big House. We - my parents and three siblings and I, lived the other side of the garden in the Cottage. Our grandparents were very much part of our lives, Grandpa a kindly presence, rarely speaking; Grandma always THERE, always busy, always ready to talk to us. She recited or read poetry to us, she coached my sister and me with stitchery…
When I was first in public school - a one room, ten grade, one teacher school - I loved the poetry. The curriculum as I remember it (to the limited extent I do remember it) was Bliss Carman and Archibald Lampman and E. Pauline Johnson. I enjoyed the rhythms and the rhymes and the ideas they expressed so beautifully.
I didn't realize how different this part of my upbringing -- particularly at home, but also in school -- was until many decades later. Then, I did an informal survey of my email correspondents, asking the question, "To what extent was your childhood and youth at home and at school influenced by poetry?" The answers came back, ranging from not at all to very little, except for one, whose education had been in a private girls' school in England before the war. For her, poetry was in her childhood and remained in her old age important to her.
The general lack of a habit of poetry from childhood tended to explain in part the comments I heard when I tossed poetry quotations into my conversation. While from some it had the tone of accusation, I took it and indeed continue to take it as a compliment, being in part a tribute to my revered elders, when I quoted scraps of poetry relevant to a given conversation.
Shakespeare is poetry. Large parts of the King James Bible are poetry. My father writes in his memoirs of one winter in the sod homestead shack on the prairies of Central Saskatchewan which he shared with his older cousin, when they read an entire set of Shakespeare. My sister Mary remembers a day when Dad was at home and lying down - a GREAT rarity - men in those days - as is said of them now too - "played hurt." But he had taken an almighty clunk on the head and HAD to lie down. Was it a horse's hoof? I don't recall. While lying down at home, he offered to my sister to read to her one of Shakespeare's plays. She felt awed and honored - not only because of the reading of the play, which he did beautifully, but because for the length of some hours she had him all to herself. She was one of four children; time alone with a parent was also a rarity.
Every morning after breakfast, Dad read a chapter of the King James Bible. I wonder if any other translation could properly be regarded as poetry. I have examined a dozen or so translations in the course of transcribing my great-grandfather's journals. He was an antiquary, specializing in ancient books, particularly those which were written after the Reformation and after the foundation of the Quaker faith. Every time he mentioned a Bible translation, I looked it up on the Internet and often found passages quoted, which in comparing them to the King James version I found not only to lack poetry but to be clumsy uses of the English language. This was not a scholarly analysis on my part but rather the impression of one whose lifelong ambition has been to master the beautiful complexities of expressing oneself well in one's mother-tongue.
I cannot say - in my ninth decade - that I have yet achieved anything approaching mastery. I'm still working on that. The best I can say is I recognize mastery when I see it, and most often, that is in poetry. My daughter, a writer herself, defines poetry as the best ideas expressed in the best words, in the best order. I like that definition.