My enjoyment of reading poetry aloud began a long time ago:
I was in Grade 2 when the small primary school I attended at Sheba Gold Mine, in the then Eastern Transvaal, hosted a concert. As was the custom, this took place on the small stage of the mine recreational hall. Apart from the weekly film show, opportunities for entertainment were so rare that most people in that mining community attended, even if they didn’t have children in the school. The details of the concert elude me for my concentration was solely focused on my contribution to the evening’s entertainment: I had been directed to recite a poem. All the poems we had learned at school were in Afrikaans; mine had to be in English.
I clearly recall paging through my mother’s embossed leather-bound volume entitled An Anthology of Modern Verse containing a collection of poems selected by A. Methuen and published in 1933. I imagine it had been among her set works at Rhodes University in Grahamstown – where decades later I was to graduate with a B.Ed. I still have that anthology and holding it in my hand even now I can tell why I was attracted to it. The blue leather is embossed in red and gold and it has a thin silk ribbon to mark one’s place. The pages are fairly thick with a slightly ribbed texture – very sensuous – and the print is bold and clear. Everything about it was as aesthetically pleasing to me then as it is now.
The poem I settled on was Silver by Walter de la Mare:
Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws and a silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.
This poem ‘spoke’ to me: I understood how the moon walked about wearing silver shoes for I had always marvelled at the way a full moon would light up the world at night; I could thus ‘see’ the Silver fruit upon silver trees. The other images are so well described that I could easily identify with them. I read that poem over and over as my ever patient mother advised me how to read it with meaning instead of a lilting line-by-line delivery. “Imagine you are telling the story of the moon,” she encouraged me, “and that you want people to get a clear picture of what you are describing.”
Such wise words. Who wouldn’t be nervous as a child reciting a poem in front of an adult audience for the first time? I doubtless wore a ribbon in my hair and know that I would have worn black school shoes with short white socks. Other details have vanished other than the memory of standing alone on that stage. I took a deep breath and, with a sense of importance, announced the title of my poem in a disappointingly squeaky voice. This was my moment to shine!
“Slowly, silently, now the moon / Walks the night in her silver shoon” I began with a confidence I didn’t feel. Memory took over, as did my natural inclination to ‘talk’ with my hands. I became aware of the silence of the audience and the unaccustomed boldness of my six-year-old voice. I curtseyed at the applause and walked off the stage filled with the power of words. I can still recite that poem over sixty years later.
I have blogged about this poem before – it clearly made an impression on me for I came to love poetry with a passion and once I became a teacher of English was always determined that the boys and girls under my tutelage would experience the power of poetry just as I had that evening so long ago.