Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Time, Death, and Poetry

or, Interesting and Sometimes Awkward Connections Made in Poetry Class

To get the full effect of this poem, you really need to read it aloud.

Calico Pie
~Edward Lear (1812-1888)

            Calico Pie,
            The little Birds fly
Down to the calico tree,
            Their wings were blue,
            And they sang ‘Tilly-loo!’
            Till away they flew,
And they never came back to me!
            They never came back!
            They never came back!
They never came back to me!

            Calico Jam,
            The little Fish swam
Over the syllabub sea,
            He took off his hat
            To the Sole and the Sprat,
            And the Willeby-wat,
But he never came back to me!
            He never came back!
            He never came back!
He never came back to me!

            Calico Ban,
            The little Mice ran,
To be ready in time for tea,
            They drank it all up,
            And danced in the cup,
But they never came back to me!
            They never came back!
            They never came back!
They never came back to me!

            Calico Drum,
            The Grasshoppers come,
The Butterfly, Beetle, and Bee,
            Over the ground,
            Around and around,
            With a hop and a bound—
But they never came back!
            They never came back!
            They never came back!
They never came back to me!

My second son tends to latch onto a particular topic and want to discuss it over and over again from every conceivable angle... for years. It used to be ambulances and fire trucks and police cars, then it moved to the movie “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” particularly the fight scene between Michael and Pony. He still loves those and we still talk about them regularly, but his current passion is time.

Four years ago he started taking me to the calendar every morning so I could show him what day we were on and tell him the name of the day. Then he wanted to know the names of all the days of the week. We’d spend five or ten minutes, several times a day going over all this. He’s just about gotten them all memorized in order now, and I think he understands yesterday, today, and tomorrow, although he calls them, “last day,” “this day,” and “next day.”

This last year his questions have gotten harder. He wants to know where the days go when they leave.

When he first started asking me that I’d tell him, “They fly away like the little birds, and they never come back! They never come back, they never come back, they never come back to me!”

He liked that for a long time and would say the lines with me, but a few months ago he seemed to be wanting something more, so I told him that Sunday is the engine of a train and the rest of the days are the cars. He loves that one. Saturday is the caboose. He wanted Monday to be a special car, so it’s the coal car. Then, this Monday he asked me if “next day” is the next coal car, but I said a train would only have one coal car, so we decided that Tuesday is a freight car. “What does it carry?” I asked him. “Boxes,” he said.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

One of our poems in Dr. Taylor’s poetry class Monday was Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break.”

Break, break, break,
    On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
    The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman’s boy,
    That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
    That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
    To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
    And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
    At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
    Will never come back to me.

As you read this poem aloud (and you should) you can hear and feel the poet’s grief as he talks about missing this loved one. I hear an echo of David’s resignation to his baby’s death, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But I’m sure you can imagine how hard it is for me to read that last line with the proper seriousness—my voice gets all sing-songy of its own accord, and it feels so irreverent, like giggling during prayer, because of course it reminds me of those lines in “Calico Pie,” which I’ve been reciting for years now.

That kind of connection is so embarrassing that I didn’t mention it in class. I wondered if Lear and Tennyson knew each other, or read each other’s works—whether one of them had borrowed from the other. They were contemporaries, so it’s possible.

Well, I’ve been thinking about it since then and I’ve decided that it’s not inappropriate. Both poems are describing loss, and in “Calico Pie” you get a feeling of inevitability as that repetitive refrain comes back again and again. Of course, Lear’s poem is lighthearted at first, but it starts feeling wistful by the time you get to the end of it. It’s right that it should feel that way.

And I’m glad that I’ve been using “Calico Pie” to talk about the days, about how, once they leave, they’re gone forever. Children should have a large store of words for giving voice to these feelings. They should feel comfortable using them in lots of situations, even when we’re only talking about a small loss. I think that being able to talk about the small losses will help them when the really painful losses start happening to them.


  1. I enjoyed this entry ~


    Children should have a large store of words for giving voice to these feelings.

    Dana in GA

  2. Thanks, Dana. Hope your Thanksgiving preparations are going well.


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