"For Meher’s grandchildren" he wrote on the title page. At my request, some years away from grandmotherhood though I am. So what, I sheepishly told my kids back home. After all, that was my allowed pure Fan Girl moment in no less than Vikram Seth’s presence. And I just know that I shall smile sharing Beastly Tales from Here and There aloud with these children’s children one fine day.
Why? Because it is that most beautiful of books: it is verse. Because I’d like to pass on the happy rush poetry gave me right through my schooldays. Because I recall Judi Dench appreciate a father who would "wake me with verse", making her learn a poem a day as a personal labour of love.
Her mantra matches my fourth grade teacher’s advice. "Whatever makes your heart sing within, sounds better sung out," she said, urging us to enjoy a poem each week with family and friends. Encouraged to write our own too, I dashed off pages full of ditties for Ms Valladares to remark in my end-of-term report card: "Don’t give up your poetic fancies."
I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not when I was a child lucky to be surrounded by shelves piled with poetry, centuries-old to contemporary. The impact of this came quietly to me in the Lake District home of Wordsworth. On a visit to Dove Cottage, I gasped to see among other treasures the original draft of The Prelude. The manuscript sheet glowed softly and did a silent dance before my eyes as I whispered, "It was an act of stealth and troubled pleasure…" The cadenced loveliness of that line still giving me goose bumps with the sweet-sharp stab of memories.
As a child it was my routine task to read out to an uncle I really loved. Once head of the English Literature department of Allahabad University, he lived long spells with us, turning tragically blind as he aged. It broke me to hear him talk of being terrified he’d forget favourite poems immortalised by the Romantics. Mouthing them for him in patterned repetition, I managed to memorise whole tracts from anthologies that have stayed with me. From Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, to Yeats and Auden, to the mad limericks of Lear and Lewis Carroll, it was inspired and inspiring, rich and rewarding.
Incidentally, Lear and Carroll are voted kings of verse for the young by J Patrick Lewis, the Children’s Poet Laureate: "No one has written better poetry since them," declares the economics professor who discovered the magic of lilt at the age of 40. "Poetry is essential for children because it is ‘the best words in the best order’. The rhythm helps them develop a love for language. When kids begin flexing their writing muscles, poetry can spark their creativity and let their imaginations soar. You read newspapers and magazines all you want, nowhere else are you going to find words taken to such beautiful and sometimes absurd extremes as in poetry. Children will not gravitate to poetry; poetry must be brought to them. Fill your home with as many kinds of books and poems as you are able."
Speaking of absurd extremes… the wicked wit of Shel Silverstein is guaranteed to get kids chuckling and cheering. I was hooked from his brilliant first collection, Don’t Bump the Glump and Other Fantasies. But few things have thrilled me more than hearing a tape with TS Eliot himself reciting Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with warmth and verve. If you thought he was just a fuddy-duddy Modernist Muggle, think again, says poet Arundhathi Subramaniam. "Old Possum never ceases to amaze with its playfulness, its music; its darting, leaping energy and zany cast of remarkably self-assured personages with complex interior and exterior lives: cats." Those above 13 might dig The Wasteland and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock as well — there’s enough angst smouldering there to resonate with the adolescent soul.
As painter-poet Gieve Patel, who compiled Poetry with Young People — a collection of verse by 12- to 16-year-olds he mentors at Rishi Valley School — believes, "Poetry is the most democratic of the arts. Though they may not all show it to anyone, human beings don’t feel debarred from expressing the deepest emotions in verse."
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