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Robin Hobb's Infrequent and Off Topic Blog

What's in Your Poetry Pantry?

Ice forming on dangling branches over a stream

"Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail."


Nasty cold here, and my feet have never forgiven me for the frostbite when I was a young teenager.  My toes are still the first part of my body to go numb on an icy day.


But as often happens to me, when I'm considering describing something, someone else's voice comes through.  In this case, it's Robert Service, and a line from "The Cremation of Sam McGee."  And if you don't know that poem, I pity you.


Actually, I pity anyone who manages to grow up without a head full of inadvertantly memorized poetry. No one forced me to memorize poetry.  It just sank into my brain and stayed there.  Effortlessly, dozens and dozens of lines rise into my mind:


"I"m Nobody.  Who are you?"

"And what is more, you'll be a man, my son."

"I have a little shadow who goes in and out with me."

"Here is a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your  head."

"Hickety, Pickety, my black hen, She lays eggs for Gentlemen."

"Now this is the law of the Jungle"

"I sit beside the fire and think of all that there might be, when winter comes without a spring that I will ever see."

"Once, upon a midnight dreary"

"What's in a Name?  That which we call a rose "

"Of arms and the man, I sing"

"Children, you are very little and your bones are very brittle "



I could go on for pages and pages.  Nursery rhymes, Shakespeare.  Kipling, Edna St Vncent Millay, Tolkien, Robert Frost, Robert Service, Mother Goose, poems my mother recited.  Walter de la Mere. Poe.  Longfellow. Keats.  My head was stuffed full of poems in my early childhood, and beyond.


And I continued that tradition.  My offspring were exposed to nursery rhymes, and we read poetry aloud at night as often as we did stories. To this day, I can start a line or two and one of them will pick it up and finish the poem.


My father died of Alzheimer's, which increases my chance of having it. (Don't think about that, don't think about that.)  Sometimes he seemed not to know me.  He'd ask after his cousin Sonny, long dead, and I learned not to mention to him that Sonny was gone.  He might not know the month, or the year.  But to his dying day, what his weary old brain retained were the songs and poetry of his younger days.  I'm not sure how much poetry is taught in our public schools these days.  But at some time, some teacher had his/her students memorize The Song of Hiawatha.  All I had to say to my father was "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis. Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis."  Dad would pick it up and go on for stanze after stanza of Longfellow's poem. He would smile as he shared it with me, and for a time he was my dad again, reciting that old poem to me.


If I do succumb to Alzheimer's (Don't thnk about that!) when my own inner voice stops speaking to me and stops demanding that I write my own stories, I hope that I will still take comfort from all my friends whose words will be forever stored in my mind.  I hope that someone will come to my bed and softly say, "Seek for the Sword that was Broken . .  ."


I hope you have stored away some poems in your attic, to cheer you when your own words seem silly or weak.


If not, it's never too late to start.


"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may . . . "

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