Sunday, February 24, 2013

Article for Mater & Magistra

I don't usually do this,  and truthfully I don't even know if I am supposed to do it, but here it is, an article I just wrote for the national Catholic home-school periodical. I enjoyed writing it, and it ties with the last post. It will be edited and crunched for space for sure, and perhaps it's a good thing. And a new and decent title will be found by the excellent Editor. Mater & Magistra is in its last year and it is sad. I will miss writing for them immensely.

My husband's love for poetry and how it enriches our family

I may have written my masters thesis on translating poetry, but my husband Geoff, the scientist, is the poetry man of the house.

Geoff's love for poetry showed itself to me very early in our relationship. Our graduate school dates, limited to public spaces and lack of money, were made up for the most part of walking and sitting on park benches or lawns and talking. He splurged sometimes and took me to the neighborhood Chinese joint. Oooh! I felt like a queen and we somehow made those dinners last hours, what with choosing between rice and lo-mein and sipping slowly the two Tsingtaos.

He wasn't then Catholic. But he asked me if I knew the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I looked at him blankly. A Jesuit, Catholic, British poet? (Even since then there has been very little of Hopkins translated or talked about in my native country.) No, I hadn't heard of it. Geoff went to tell me about the great, suffering poet whose work he so admired. If someone would have asked me then, I would have certainly answered: "Yes, this guy will read poems to our numerous children one day. He is the one I have been looking for!" I am glad no one did ask me that. Perhaps Geoff would have run away as fast as he could, had he known my castles in the air.

Fast forward a few years: we may not have had "numerous" children yet, but he was already reading poetry to the oldest of our children. Our oldest son remembers dad's English classes at home to the children of family friends: he can still recite William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright...." But it was our second child who showed early literary and poetic tendencies, and from early on she greatly enjoyed when her dad read aloud a Robert Service poem.

It wasn't planned, or weekly. It was sporadic as sporadic can be. Depending on the climate, the overall state of things inside the home, and the conversation topic over coffee, my good husband would spring up from the chair and go to the exact location on our wall-to-wall bookshelf and retrieve the very volume he sought. And he would read aloud, slowly and clearly, not only from Robert Service but also Shakespeare, Tennyson, Longfellow, Robert Browning, Edgar Alan Poe, Christina Rossetti, William Blake, John Donne, and even some fun nonsense from Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The colorful, multi-sized volumes, some old and in poor condition, would enjoy lights and smells of kitchen and hearth room held in the hands of a good father. Once in a while he would grab a volume of his favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Reading Hopkins isn't easy. He certainly doesn't do it perfectly. But he reads it with a heart of admiration and love, and it shows through his recitations. And, of course, Hopkins' sprung rhythm and amazing language speaks for itself:
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 5
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 10
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Was it way over the heads of the kids? Certainly. Such is life: our road is towards the unreachable Perfection, and yet we trod, everyday. They may not understand, but children are somehow awed and inspired by greatness. It gives them a longing for greater things. Read them great poetry when they are very young, and they will not settle for poetic mediocrity later in life: they will know there is better elsewhere!

In our third son's high school years my husband offered a one-year course in Poetry to our homeschool group and several of their friends enjoyed the opportunity to study poetry together. I wrote a course description:
Poetry in the English Language
Poetry has been a lifelong passion of Dr. Henebry!
In this course we will explore the riches of poetry in the English language.
The text will be "Immortal Poems of the English Language", a splendid anthology by Oscar Williams of 150 British and American poets spanning 600 years. Emphasis will be on understanding the poems, how they work, how they sound, and what they say.

During that course, my teen son would say that "Dad should have been a Literature professor, not a scientist!" He greatly enjoyed that weekly hour dedicated to the study of poetry, around a round table in a library classroom. My husband attended a Great Books program college, but during graduate school he did not take a single Humanities course. His passion for poetry come from his love for literature and art, and from his high school days.

I find poetry at once beautiful and difficult. The meaning-laden verses, especially in English, seem obscure to me often times. Even under this disadvantage I have been enormously thankful, as a wife and mother, for this role my husband has played in our home. It wasn't done perfectly. Little if anything is done perfectly in our home, most probably like anyone else's home. But as Chesterton so famously opined: "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."


Christine said...

If Margot gets more subscriptions, will she keep the magazine in print?

Candise and Crew said...

Beautiful sentiments!