My first contact with poetry was when I was 10 years old and went to the public library for the very first time. I went by myself on the bus. My grandmother gave me my carfare, and checked to be sure I had on clean underwear just in case “something happened to me.” I went to the Westchester Square branch, about a 20 minute ride from our house in the Bronx. When I arrived I was immediately taken by the enormity of the place. The stacks of books were much taller than I and the light from the tall casement windows lit up the room. This was a far cry from the Bookmobile, the portable library inside a dark and narrow truck that visited our remote corner of the Bronx every 2 weeks. The librarian, sensing a first time visitor, welcomed me and asked if she could help. She suggested as my first book, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It was one of those classic works, probably published in the 1920’s with magnificent colored illustrations and a gilt lettered spine. I carried that book back home on the bus with a sense of pride and the expectation of what I would discover inside. Thus began my love of books and libraries. On opening the book for the first time I saw an epigraph poem on the frontispiece whose first stanza went like this:
If sailor tales to sailor tunes, storms and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons, and buccaneers, and buried gold,
And all the old romance, retold exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old, the wiser youngsters of today,
So be it, and fall on!
I was immediately taken by this poem and read it so many times that I learned it by heart. A year or so later I came upon a TV series called “The Adventures of Long John Silver” and I heard the poem recited at the beginning of every episode in the voice of Long John Silver himself as voice-over to the black and white images of a 3-masted ship sailing over the waves of our 12 inch TV. I immediately got hooked on the series, which ran only for one year, and even recited the poem along with him, inserting his hearty laughter, “Har, har, har!” between the last 2 lines. That singular experience led me to a lifelong love of poetry in all its forms, best of all the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Many years later I had the opportunity to take a 3-day acting Shakespeare workshop with Patsy Rodenburg of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the coach to Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. I asked Miss Rodenburg why she thought a 10 year old kid would be so struck by Stevenson’s poem that it would lead to a lifelong love of poetry? I was prepared for a deep, psychological understanding and explanation of my query, but all she said was, “You liked it, Edward. You simply liked it.” That was a life lesson. Since then I’ve come to understand that a lot of the things I’ve liked in my life I’ve liked simply because I’ve liked them.
Next week I will attend a reading of the poetry of the Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner, Wislawa Szymborska, Why? Because I like it.