When we were children our mother used to put us to bed at night and entertain us on long car trips with poetry. We loved ballads, and she knew a bunch of them by heart: The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and especially Kipling. My very favorite poem of his was The Ballad of East and West. And when we did the dishes after dinner, there were four positions, one for each of us: washer, dryer, putterawayer and reader. In this way we recited lots of poetry, read a good bit of Charles Dickens, and in the process learned to love the spoken word, the sound of literature.
In 1960 when I was fifteen my father’s father died, and my mother and I drove my grandfather’s old ’55 Chevy home to West Virginia from Ashville, North Carolina, on windy mountain roads. It was an ordeal. My mother was a tiny woman not five feet tall and never a good driver. I kept her spirits up and her mind distracted from her fear by requesting poems, and she recited them one after another. I don’t think we exhausted her supply even on that long drive.
Then in college I had a freshman speech class in which our professor talked about the oral tradition of literature that was especially strong there in the Appalachian hills. He invited us to recite any bits of poetry we might know. Someone said a limerick, someone else some Ogden Nash doggerel, then there was a song lyric and a verse or two of Robert Frost. I said the opening lines of The Ballad of East and West:
Oh East is East and West is West,
And never the twain shall meet,
Til earth and sky stand presently
At God’s great judgment Seat.
But there is neither East nor West,
Border nor breed nor birth
When two strong men stand face to face
Tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.
When I stopped, the professor looked at me hopefully. “I don’t think you are finished.”
“Well, I guess I know a little more.” I got through the next few lines.
“Go on,” he said.
And I went on. To my amazement, I knew the whole thing, all ninety-seven lines of it. If my memory serves, I’d never seen the poem on the printed page. I knew it only from hearing my mother recite it.
This little story is not about my powers of memory which are quite ordinary. It is about the powers of poetry which are not.