In my last post I discussed some of the criteria we use in our family for choosing poetry for our homeschool, and how we apply St. Paul’s standard of “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise.” (Phil. 4:8) As an example of what not to choose I discussed Wallace Stevens’ “The Anecdote of the Jar”.
I’ve chosen my example of a suitable poem below not because it’s a great poem (it’s not, although it is certainly good), but because my students have had success with it, and have enjoyed it, in the past. It’s called “Barnacles”, and I came upon it in a little volume called Poems Every Child Should Know, published in 1904. I had never heard of the poem or of Sydney Lanier, its author, but I could immediately see its appeal:
MY soul is sailing through the sea,
But the Past is heavy and hindereth me.
The Past hath crusted cumbrous shells
That hold the flesh of cold sea-mells
About my soul.
The huge waves wash, the high waves roll,
Each barnacle clingeth and worketh dole
And hindereth me from sailing!
Old Past let go, and drop i' the sea
Till fathomless waters cover thee!
For I am living but thou art dead;
Thou drawest back, I strive ahead
The Day to find.
Thy shells unbind! Night comes behind,
I needs must hurry with the wind
And trim me best for sailing.
I often tell my students that a poem is a “multi-media presentation”, which is perhaps not strictly true, but by which I mean that the poem engages us simultaneously in different ways: it engages our sense of hearing the with sound of the words themselves, our tactile sense by the rhythm created by meter and rhyme, our visual sense with the images it creates in our minds, and by the elegance and sophistication of expression. In a really good poem all these things work together to create a unified effect, and we may not even be consciously aware of them, but after experiencing them we say to ourselves, “Yes, that’s right!”
I think that “Barnacles” is such a poem. Read it aloud and just listen to the sounds, feel the wave-like rolling rhythm, and how the half-line in the middle of each stanza creates an effect like the “hindering” action of barnacles on the hull of a boat (or of certain events in our past). Euphony (literally, “good sound”) is part of the beauty of a poem. This is not to say that there is no place for cacophony or harsh sounds, but they should not predominate; rather, they should be used as a contrast, or to highlight harsh or ugly details.
Notice also the universal applicability of the image of barnacles (at least once we know what they are!). Unlike the images in “The Anecdote of the Jar”, which can signify anything at all (or maybe nothing?) , the dragging effect of barnacles on the hull of a boat clearly correlates to the common human experience of trying to escape the unwelcome effects of our past. All the elements move toward the same goal, and reinforce each other.
In my next post I’ll wrap up with a brief discussion of the importance of the form of the poem, particularly in a Catholic homeschool context.