I’m at a suburban St. Louis festival, with food booths and politicians campaigning and jugglers and pony rides for the children, plus craft and antique booths for the adults. And bands are scheduled to play throughout the day, and I can hear Dixieland jazz floating over a summer afternoon.
Not surprisingly, I’m in the pavilion for the used book sale, which raises funds for a local orchestra. It’s smallish by used book fair standards, but it’s has about 2,000 books sorted by category. I find one small shelf titled “POETRY,” and I spot the smallest book on the smallest shelf. Interestingly enough, it’s not a poetry book, but an essay written by a poet.
Padraic Colum (1881-1972) was an Irish writer who worked in most genres – poetry, biography, fiction, children’s stories, literary criticism and folklore among them. He was one of the leading lights of the so-called Celtic Revival, which stretched from the 18th until well into the 20th century. Colum was close friends with William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, among a host of other literary figures; he actually helped Joyce in the transcription of Finnegan’s Wake.
In 1927, Colum published a book of essays called The Fountain of Youth. Among them was one entitled Story Telling New and Old, a kind of apologetic for oral storytelling for children and reading poetry and having children memorize poems--not exactly the current fashion in education circles today. This essay was reissued as a single, small volume by The Macmillan Company in 1961, when Colum received the Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association.
This was the small book I held in my hands at the used book sale. I knew who Padraic Colum was, but I had only read a few of his poems. The sales price was all of $2, so I bought it. When I got home, I discovered it was actually signed by the author. It will forever remain a mystery how an autographed book half a century old ended up at a festival book sale in St. Louis.
“It has been discovered,” Colum writes, “that there is still a place in the world for an oral art – for story-telling.” He describes the kind of storytellers he knew as a child, adults who told a story well but who also essentially acted it out, with sounds and noises, gestures, body movements and facial expressions. “He told his stories in the evening; he told them by the light of a candle and a peat fire – often by the light of a peat fire only. There were shadows upon the walls around.” Describing the storyteller and his art becomes, for Colum, a kind of story in and of itself.
He then moves on to poetry, “…in so far as it is oral, in connection with oral stories. Children should be got not merely to read and know poetry, but to possess some part of the heritage of poetry. They should know poems by heart – a dozen, twenty, forty, fifty poems.” This is more than only about poetry; this is learning culture, and a culture, and how to learn culture. And it is about what “holds our attention, that helps us to bring our minds to a focus. That underlying something is rhythm.” He goes on to say that it also teaching ethics, and that every child should be taught some system of ethics.
What’s particularly interesting is how Colum links memorization of poems with creativity. Through the possession or a part of the heritage of poetry, of story, children can enter or keep in the world that has been spoken about – the world of imagination, thought , and intuition.”
I went looking for Colum’s poems. The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine, has put its entire collection on the web, and there I found many of his poems when they were first published (and before they were collected).
The March 1914 edition is rather amazing to sift through. There are several poems by Carl Sandburg, including “Chicago,” with its “City of Big Shoulders” line. You can find poems by Sara Teasdale and Edwin Arlington Robinson and extended editorial comments by Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound. And two poems by Colum – “The Sea Bird to the Wave” and “Three Spinning Songs.” Here is the third of the three spinning songs:
An old woman sings:
There was an oul trooper went riding by
On the road to Carricknabauna,
And sorrow is better to sing than cry,
On the way to Carricknabauna.
And as the oul trooper went riding on
He heard this sung by a crone, a crone
On the road to Carricknabauna.
“I’ll spread my cloak for you, young lad,
Were it only the breadth of a farthen’
And if your mind was as good as your word,
In troth, it’s you I’d rather!
In dread of any jealousy
And before we go any farther
Carry me up to the top of the hill
And show me Carricknabauna!”
Would you show me Carricknabauna?
I lost a horse at Cruckmoylinn –
At the cross of Bunratty I lost a limb –
But I left my youth on the crown of the hill
Over by Carricknabauna!”
Girls, young girls, the rush-light is done.
What will I do when my thread is spun?
To read it is one experience; to read it aloud – as Colum would have intended – is a totally different experience. You catch the language, the sounds and the rhythm. It indeed becomes more memorable, and hearing your voice tell the story helps explain what is happening, and what this “song” is really about.
This isn’t simply a literary argument in favor of reading stories and poetry aloud. “For the human voice,” he says in his essay, when it can really charge itself with what is in a poem or a story, more powerfully than any other agency, can put into our deeper consciousness those lasting patterns which belong to the deeper consciousness of the race.”
Show me Carricknabauna!