Language is Life: Drunk on Words

“A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” 

W.H. Auden

Third grade brought big changes to my young life. Our family had moved across town the previous summer to a bigger house, leaving behind our friends and a school I knew. My baby brother was born that winter, adding another member to our growing family. So I began third grade at Dennis School with a new teacher, Mrs. Plambeck. My second grade teacher at Parsons Elementary was young and wore flowery dresses, but Mrs. Plambeck was a sensible, no-nonsense woman. Clad in comfortable shoes, cat-eyed glasses, and drab, shapeless dresses, she ran her classroom in a strict manner. No funny business. Everything was serious, even when we sang from the classroom songbooks. I don’t remember anyone ever acting out or even questioning her techniques. We were children of the sixties. We listened quietly and did what we were told.

Mrs. Plambeck required we memorize poems and then present to the class. It was terrifying. Here I was, this shy, new girl with little confidence, forced to recite poetry in front of the entire room. If we missed a word or forgot a stanza, Mrs. Plambeck would correct us, and often she requested we start the poem over. I have a vague memory of her sitting off to left with pursed lips as I stumbled through verses. Most of the lines were immediately forgotten the moment I hastily returned to my desk.

The only poem that stuck was “Nancy Hanks,” written by Rosemary Benet about the musings of Abraham Lincoln’s dead mother. It was short and fairly easy to memorize. Years later, I still remember most of the first stanza. Students in Illinois learn much about Abraham Lincoln. He is revered, and when I recited the poem to the class, I felt the sadness in his mother’s words. Lincoln was only nine when he lost his mother (my age in third grade), and his life was thrown into despair. His grieving father soon found another woman to wed, Sarah Bush Johnston, who took young Abe into her heart and continued his mother’s quest to educate the boy who would later become the 16th president. The poem, though, was his dead mother wondering about her boy. “Did he grow tall?” “Did he learn to read?” “Did he get on?” As I spoke the lines, I knew the answers to her questions, but I also felt her loss, her longing, her pain.

What I have come to appreciate is Mrs. Plambeck’s poetry lessons, even though the memorization and recitation was scary, gifted me understanding and respect for the tremendous potential words possess. These poems we learned conveyed sorrow and truth, pretty deep stuff for third-graders. Throughout my life, because of Mrs. Plambeck and other dedicated teachers, I am drawn to how language can make me feel. Even now when I read something powerful, I pause, catch my breath, and say a small prayer to the writer gods for giving me this moment, whether it is joyful, devastating, or melancholy. Language is life, and I am forever grateful to my third grade teacher for introducing me to all it offers.

Nancy Hanks

by Rosemary Benet (with husband, Stephen Vincent Benet) – 1933

If Nancy Hanks

Came back as a ghost,

Seeking news

Of what she loved most,

She’d ask first “Where’s my son?

What’s happened to Abe?

What’s he done?”

“Poor little Abe,

Left all alone

Except for Tom,

Who’s a rolling stone;

He was only nine

The year I died.

I remember still

How hard he cried.”

“Scraping along

In a little shack,

With hardly a shirt

To cover his back,

And a prairie wind

To blow him down,

Or pinching times

If he went to town.”

“You wouldn’t know

About my son?

Did he grow tall?

Did he have fun?

Did he learn to read?

Did he get to town?

Do you know his name?

Did he get on?”

 photo: findagrave.com
photo: findagrave.com

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