I once heard writer, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson point out that in our baby babbling, we sing before we talk and before we walk. Our parents sing to us, sometimes wordless hums like the way an animal will croon to its young. Soon moms and dads are reading or telling us stories, often sing-songy ones that give way to verse and full-fledged poems. I remember a lot of Dr. Seuss to start with, soon Shel Silverstein and A Child’s Garden of Verses and a much-thumbed volume we had called The Family Book of Best Loved Poems.
Maybe some outgrow all this at a fairly young age, but the bookworm I was, I gobbled up stories of young heroines like Anne of Green Gables who always seemed to be quoting poetry (when they weren't writing it) and performing recitations. I guess this must have been part of our culture back in the day their authors grew up or set their tales (and characters who love to read and write seem over-represented in fiction, for reasons that may be obvious).
Elementary school and later language arts teachers encouraged any bent I had in that direction. A sixth-grade math teacher would give us a break from equations by reading from his favorite poet, Robert W. Service; though this was usually the sort of behavior more expected from English teachers. Me, I learned Lewis Carroll, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Madeleine L’Engle poems by heart, memorized Shakespeare speeches, and even composed a few poems and stories of my own (though I am afraid they were pretty awful).
After a seventh grade assignment to choose a favorite topic and put together our own book of collected poems, I was hooked on curating. I started assembling scrapbooks of poems, songs, and quotations, starting with those I already loved and poems about the sea (my chosen topic for that seventh-grade project).
The older I've become, the sillier and more babyish this all looked. I tucked my scrapbooks away and added to them less and less often. I still copy scriptures and moving passages from books into my journals at times. Now and again I'll share something around the campfire, in the letter, or in an impromptu talent show. And on a long drive, I’ll sing songs and recite poetry from the treasure trove I’ve committed to memory over the years.
These days it’s very rare and only with trusted friends whom I hope understand and accept my quirks that I will share a short poem or part of a poem I know by heart... maybe Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, or Maggie and Milly and Molly and May, and hope people don't look at me weird.
I seldom go for long drives now, at least not alone. My husband would probably not appreciate me practicing poetry in the car for no particular reason. But now that I’m older I am more likely to wake in the night. Lying awake in the wee hours, well, it seems the perfect time to tell myself a Best Loved Poem.