The gift of poetry

National Poetry Month, Day 19  //  One of my teachers in elementary school required my classmates and me to memorize poetry. I don’t know if teachers still do that – I doubt it – but it was the best gift she gave me and probably the reason she’s the only teacher from that time in my life whose name I remember: Mrs. McGinnis.

The school was a small one, in a small town in the northeast corner of Arkansas. About the only thing the town had going for it, besides the school and the usual handful of stores, was a cotton gin and the county courthouse. Twice each year a significant number of my classmates disappeared, given leave to help their families tend cotton, the main agricultural product of the region. When my parents, sister, and I moved to my paternal family home in Missouri and I entered a larger, more advanced school system, I chose to repeat the eighth grade so I could catch up academically.

However, there was one area of my education in which I didn’t lag behind, my love of poetry and engagement with literature, and I attribute it to Mrs. McGinnis. Memorizing was hard work, I remember, and I didn’t like it very much, but because I had to do it, a love of poetry took root in me, and it grew into a perspective on life that has enriched me immeasurably. That’s why, when I retired from full-time parish ministry, I rid myself of most of my theology and church history books and kept all the books of poetry.

I also kept my memory of the first long poem Mrs. McGinnis assigned me to memorize, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the whole thing. All I remember of the poem now are its first twenty-three lines (you can read the rest here), but along with them I remember how it is to have a poem become part of me, to have it lodge in my heart. It has been among the best parts of my education, and since I’m writing this post on April 18, the anniversary of the ride, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. And with it, I raise a toast to Mrs. McGinnis.

“Paul Revere’s Ride,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light, —
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said, “Good night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

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