BENEATH THE HEIGHTS

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 5
THE POWER OF POETRY

The power of the pen fascinated me early in life. By the time I was in the third or fourth grade, I had begun to write poetry. Bad poetry it was, but writing poetry was my first attempt to express feelings I had been taught to suppress. Unfortunately, as with so many would?be poets, I forced my lines into singsong rhymes, used archaic poetic clichés and harbored the young poet’s unnatural love of nature.

During those early public school days, I had two loves and two patronesses of my poetry, my mother and my first teacher Mrs. Murray. My chief joy as a child was to please these two important women in my life. And my mother was my first muse. For Valentine’s Day, she was the object of my poetic saccharine sweetness.

To My Mother
Valentine’s Day 1952

[My Valentine to Mother, 1952]

This verse to Mother I thank.
Who will sometimes spank.
Who gets my meals
And my sickness she heals.
My clothes she always washes,
And tells me when to wear galoshes.
She is very, very nice,
But dear me, is she scared of mice.
So, please be my Valentine,
Won’t you be mine.

Despite the bad verse, my Mother encouraged my writing. More poured out: an ode to her washing day, my reflections on the seasons and on daily childhood routines and adventures.

Mother' s Washing Day

When it's Mother's washing day
And before I go to play,
I have the dishes to do
With cups and saucers blue.

First she brings down all the clothes.
Then there's something else she knows.
First she puts the white things in
Looks through the pockets ere no pin.

Then she'll rinse them by and by
Next she’ll hang them up to dry.
By and by they’ll all be done
Then she’ll go and have some fun.

Fall and Winter

Fall is here
Winter is near;
Said a deer
To one near.

Nature in May

Most of the flowers are out in May
All the leaves on them are out today.
Then the blossoms are here again,
Through the orchard and the glen.

All the little breezes will blow,
Then all the boys a-fishing will go.
The grass will be growing,
And needs a good mowing.

The bears are coming out again,
A?coming out of their den.
All the birds came again
To the woods and the glen.

Indian Night

At camp we had heap big Indian night.
And when the fire was burning bright
All the braves gathered round the fire
Dressed in their Indian attire.
We were painted in war paint,
And sang songs quite quaint.

Years later, when I became an High School English teacher, Mother liked to tease me by announcing that she had kept all my baby scribbling. She even persisted in quoting her favorite lines in my homage to her. "I think my mother is very nice. But boy is she afraid of mice."

Whenever I asked her why she held on to all my pubescent poems, she would simply smile and say, “I'm saving them for the future, when you become famous.” That threat always chilled me to the bone. All my silly childish thoughts exposed! How could my mother do that to me?

But then how bad could these early literary efforts be? I had not saved many and had long forgotten, thankfully, what I had written back in the early fifties. After I first began to bring back many of my memories and impressions of those brief Queenston years, I asked Mother to send me copies of these scrawls to transport me back to those early days. She had kept every one. My worst fears were well founded! I was the king of trash at ten years old.

Although Mother encouraged me and was often the person to whom I wrote, I was also wrote to please my teacher for four impressionable early years, Mrs. Murray. She could be a harsh task master, but she was bright and loving too. I always worked hard for her and wanted her to be proud of me and to love me too. Excelling in my schoolwork and writing poetry was one way I could prove my worth and earn the love I seemed so desperately to need.

Yet, in reviewing my trite classical illusions, I realize that her influence did not bring forth great writing. Those pious elementary school poetry readers she and the school trustees prescribed for us children every year condemned my simple poems and me to a blazing mediocrity.

Before my Mother could expose me to the world, I choose to expose myself and share my childhood neuroses in these my silly and sorry poems. One of the most autobiographical was letter poem that I wrote to her Mother, my Grandmother Priest. The poem was written during the sixth grade since it includes not only some early comments on my paper route, but also our problems with our new and unpopular first male teacher, Mr. Thompson.

A Letter to Grandma

Dear Grandma: I didn’t have anything to do
So I wrote this letter to you.

Our New Addition:
The new addition on our school is done,
And is very modern in more ways than one.
There are sinks in every room, and lots of lights too.

And modern desks for John, Bill and Sue.
There's a library and storage room too.
And with the describing I guess I 'm through.

Teacher Trouble: This year we got a new man teacher.
He isn’t a too well liked creature,
At recess and noon there’s a pipe by his face
By time the bell goes he's stunk up the place.

Yesterday the principal got sick right away,
And the kids in her room got a holiday.

I'm sitting here thinking and watching the rain,
Trying to think of something up in my brain.
Now I've got, what I’ll tell you about:
The Cubs in my town and my paper route.
Mike’s Ma' s the leader of all the Cub pack,
So that'll be more for him to yak.

I’m a Sixer of a third of it all
And we have our meetings in the
new Parish Hall. My papers have dropped to forty-eight
And it will be lower at this awful rate.
Your rhyming Grandson,
Robin.

As I grew older, I had other muses that confused and comforted me. Strange and lonely feelings crowded my hyperactive mind. Yet I had little opportunity to express them, let alone understand them. My poetry could transport me out of my restricted life, alone among the few other children my age. I knew by that I was somehow different from the others, but I could articulate nothing but a need to soar beyond what I saw around me.

While other kids liked the typical childhood activities: group games and team sports, I liked to lose myself in the open spaces to hike or blaze new campsites away from the traveled paths. Sometimes it was important to have others with me, my band of loyal friends whom I would try, sometimes unkindly, to control. Being first also meant being the leader of the small group of friends I gathered around me.

At other times I wandered alone along the deep wide lower Niagara or climbed up to my favorite vantage points on the Heights where I could wonder at the mystery of life in my little world and wonder about what lay beyond. Life was very serious business to me. I could escape the restlessness and confusion I felt in words. Words could help me escape that loneliness and express the beauty I saw around me and tell of the dreams I had for the future. Perhaps only my hindsight reflections are of pain, the poetry itself seemed pure childhood fantasy and joy.

Fairies

Fairies dance through all the night,
Until morning brings its light.
All their dancing shoes on feet
Look so tidy trim and neat.

They drink dew from a buttercup,
Take each drop with a little sup.
They dance all night till morning nigh
Then the woods and grasslands die.

I was relieved to see that I had a sense of humor as well as an appreciation, or envy, of what the older kids did in the dark. I apparently liked to poke fun at people like our neighbours next door.

The Brights

We have some neighbours
Called the Brights.
And on some peculiar nights,
We hear a funny noise,
Sorta like a bunch of boys,
With Nancy and Joan.
In the dark alone.

I was somewhat surprised to read my early attempts at modern liberal thought, voiced in “Coloured Faces.” Where did this come from? There were no black faces in Queenston and just one family of Japanese. Was it a result of my infatuation with their oldest daughter, Diane?

Despite the weak verse, I was at least glad to see I was an early supporter of what has now called “cultural diversity.”

Coloured Faces

Far over the sea
Wherever you may be.
From different tribes and races,
There are different coloured faces.
Some black brown and yellow
And some round and mellow
Far over the sea
Wherever you may be.

Poetry did not come as easily or as often with the loss of childhood innocence. I had grown, thankfully, beyond the simple rhymes and thoughts. Was it the loss of joy or just time? My discrimination in poetry certainly shifted with more study of the English language in the days beyond Laura Secord Public.

By teenage years in high school, I had come to hate the dread boring text of old sonnets and epics that we were forced to read in hushed tones. But after I enrolled at McMaster University in Hamilton, the muse returned. I had decided on a double major: History then was my first love, and I took English literature as a second choice. Once again poetry began to excite me as I read from the masters of all ages. Pope and Dryden, Shakespeare and Milton, Frost and Sandburg now began to speak to me from across the years and the pages. By the end of four years, when I realized I was not headed for the United Church pulpit, I elected to follow my third grade dream and become a teacher, “just like Mrs. Murray.” After only eight weeks of summer school at Ontario Teacher’s College, I was scheduled to go into my first classroom as a high school English teacher. I vowed I would not force feed my students dry poetry. I had to make them feel the words as well.

During that first summer session of Teacher’s College in 1964, we all were asked to write a biography and explain why we wanted to teach English. My poetic muse was rekindled, and although not a poem, I sought to handle the topic more creatively and poetically than yet another essay assignment like “What I did on my summer vacation.”

I wrote one single page that told the story of my life, where I came from and where I hoped to go.

Biography for Ontario Teacher’s College, or
“Why I Want to Teach English”
Summer School 1964

To the crashing of cymbals of a holy band I arrived in the world November 21, 1941, at a Salvation Army Hospital in Ottawa. My destined mission to warn the world of impending disaster was thwarted by the incompetence of those around me who could not interpret my desperate cries. Two weeks later it was too late and Pearl Harbour had been destroyed.

A failure at birth I wandered aimlessly through melancholy existence until at five I entered primary school. Education was sweet at Laura Secord Pubic School in Queenston, yet after eight years of boxing chocolates my principal suggested that university was the place for me. During the interim five year course in memory work I acquired a particular love of history, its quest flew before me as elusively as Laura Secord's cow. English, especially English poetry, bored me. No one even attempted to discourage my hostility.

With eighties and nineties in history I entered the ivy?draped ivory mansions, confident I could restore my position in an unfriendly universe. Mediaeval man foiled my chances as nineties became sixties. And then it was the Red Cross Knight who fought Error in her den and rescued Truth. Poetry began to speak to me again.

For four years English and History vied for the favours of an uncommitted soul. First Shakespeare at Stratford, then men in tides: Langland, Chaucer, Spenser; Milton, Wordsworth, Eliot; Twain, James, Crane, Melville; Ibsen, Shaw, Miller. Their voices rose from a murmur to a shout. Perhaps I can make others hear.

Carole’s Song

In my first year of teaching, I had another chance to write another poem. I was just twenty-two years old when I arrived in my first classroom at the brand new Southmount High School in Hamilton. One mature student was no more than four years my junior.

[Southmount Home Room 1964]

Carole had become a mother to her younger siblings after her own mother died or just left. While I never knew her whole story, her father must have been abusive, or at the very least, was an uncaring and distant man. She seemed to have no friends or time to enjoy a carefree teenage world. She looked out from heavily made?up eyelashes and dark black bangs at a world that she could not understand, neither the abuses she bore silently, nor the love she apparently craved.

The sad young woman began to write poetry to a sympathetic young teacher she saw before her. I would receive sad lonely stares through class, followed by reams of poetry from her tortured soul. Pain and lust seemed to be merged together, and unfortunately, it seemed I was the object of both. I wanted Carole to have some way of crying out, but there was no way I could or should get involved in her life or pain. How could I let her know that I cared, I understood, indeed I even shared some of that same pain? How could I keep her at a safe and respectful distance, befitting our role as teacher and student?

And so I wrote a poem. Carole’s poetry told all directly. Her sorrows, her fears, her loves were all right there at the surface. I wanted to show her how to abstract her ideas, how to use metaphors like so many of the great poets we studied in class. I wanted her to keep on writing, to keep using her pain to tell the world something that others could see and feel too. But most of all I wanted to tell her I understood her longings, but that I could not share them with her directly.

Carole came up to my desk after reading my poem. She looked slightly befuddled and hesitant.

“That little girl, is that me?" she stammered. She had understood and when I nodded “yes,” she smiled broadly and proudly returned to her seat, understanding not only my poem but also my concern for her.

I had not written again since 1964 until I moved to Mexico. For my "retirement" day poetry, check out my few efforts at A HREF="http://jim2rob.com/relpoetry.html">Mexican Poems.

For Carole

A dark-eyed child with hair blowing free
Runs to the seashore.
Secrets in her heart,
Questions on her lips.

A sad-eyed fisherman with ace-black skin
Mends his nets.
Secrets in his heart.
Questions on his lips.

No one to understand.
The child can scribble notes.
Her life and thoughts she pores
In etchings in the sand.

Two black eyes can read
These secret thoughts.
He smiles
She knows a friend is there
Although they must not speak.

Every day her heart she shows
In sketches in the sand
Her listener nods and knows.
Release!
Back to her play
Back to his nets
A rising tide,
A smooth clean beach.
Friends.
Although they will never speak.

My poetry failed me during the busy years of teaching, graduate school and university work. I began again here in Mexico after several traumatic life events spurred me to once again express myself. Check out my more current work at Mexican Poems.

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