It's a bit of a cliched image, the young lad standing ramrod straight and dressed in his best Victorian finery, at the front of the parlour before enduring guests and adoring family, reciting classic poetry of the highest moral rectitude, poems "with plain, easy rhythms, uncomplicated heroics and unabashed pathos." Modern society may look back upon such activity with a mix of amusement and mockery, but I think we may be missing something of value, for poetry has a way of making us face aspects of our culture we would rather ignore. And poetry is at its strongest when delivered in a clear, strong voice bereft of moral uncertainty.
Unfortunately, not only has the high tide of poetry passed, revealing jagged shoals, but very little modern poetry is intended to be read aloud. Indeed, try to recite most current poems and your tongue will either fall off or you'll Gibbs-slap yourself with it. The poems most successful in verbal performance today are still those gems chosen for recitation by that well-schooled lad in the family parlour. For me, poetry is primarily a verbal tradition; I don't write as many poems as I used to, but when I do write a poem the first thing I do is read it aloud to hear how it sounds. Admittedly, reading a poem is not like reading a short story and takes a different set of skills, but it's well worth the effort.
As our children were growing, we encouraged them to read poems and to recite their favorites to us. I can't say we were entirely successful, but we were as successful as one can be contending against video games, films, television and the myriad other distractions of this digital age. The Kid recited poems about the survivor of the Titanic, the heroics and folly of battle, and the power of Vachel Lindsay's Jungle; above all, the Kidette regaled us with the tale of Poe's "grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore" (over and over and over), but she also brought to life Paul Revere's midnight ride, Blake's Tyger burning brightly in the night, and Sandburg's feline "Fog." And they both took a little stroll with the Carpenter and the Walrus, and cavorted with Eliot's Cats. Now, of course, both children are grown and no longer read poetry, but I do hope those forced performances abide with them. They do with me.