As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
This is the first poem I remember. Though it would soon be my grandfather reciting poetry to me and buying me my first Shel Silverstein books, it was my grandmother who read me this poem/riddle from a giant public domain joke book, a book so large and yellowed, you would assume it must be a phone book.
I don't remember if we tried to solve the riddle, though, perhaps my love of solving word puzzles comes from this same instance. I do remember turning a few pages to get to a certain lunar leaping bovine and his fiddle playing feline companion. Between the brief poems were the sort of jokes three year olds love. There was farting in tubs, chickens, roads, and all sorts of appendage-less, inanimate objects knocking on doors. I'd like to think this is why I enjoy poetry that contains some element of the surreal or, at least, something funny. But I can't be sure. This column isn't called GPS Directions To Why I Got Here. Let's assume that one would blame my parents and the inadequate American education system.
Every time my family visited my grandparents, it was always my grandmother who read to me from the joke book until I giggled myself tired. My grandfather's schtick was to yell "Cut out that laughing!" as though he were auditioning for the role of Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I don't remember how old I was when he bought me A Light In The Attic but I remember it as a funny collection of rhyming poetry, and not the guide to civil disobedience and Satanism that it's since been accused of. Shortly thereafter, he bought me the much tamer Where The Sidewalk Ends. I didn't break any dishes, but I didn't take the garbage out, either. Rather than get me into Silverstein's more controversial work, my grandfather turned me toward Jack Prelutsky for my simple and short rhyming verse. He also started buying me the grandpappy of Audiobooks, Books On Tape.
The first one I remember loving was The Wind In The Willows. It led to a rather epic meltdown when the premier of the cartoon was cut off because my grandparents' cable company switched from USA to Nick At Nite at 8pm, when the movie was most definitely not over. There were other Books On Tape, such as Whoever Heard Of A Fird and Tom Sawyer, but the ones that I loved were Alice In Wonderland (I've been unable as an adult to find the particular growly British man who still narrates the book in my head), and The Short Stories Of Edgar Allan Poe. Combined they enhanced my love of poetry, while also giving me reason to believe cats are often insane and capable of great evil. When I was in college, and competing in the Oral Interpretation Of Literature portion of The National Forensics Association, I used The Black Cat for my prose piece, and for my poetry round, I did three poems from Lewis Carroll: Jabberwocky, The Walrus And The Carpenter, and
"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head--
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"
"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."
"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door--
Pray, what is the reason of that?"
"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his gray locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment -- one shilling the box --
Allow me to sell you a couple?"
"You are old," said the youth, "and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak--
Pray, how did you manage to do it?"
"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw
Has lasted the rest of my life."
"You are old," said the youth, "one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose--
What made you so awfully clever?"
"I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"
Said his father; "don't give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I'll kick you down-stairs!"
Now, I can't claim to have taken the persona of Father William completely to heart. I've never married, I hate arguing, and have never been convicted of kicking anyone down a flight of stairs, but there is certainly a little Father William in the way I answer questions about poetry.
What's your first memory of a poem? Or are you one of those unicorns who can't remember life before poems? Do you think it/they shaped who you've become? If no, are you trying to kid me or yourself?