Tuesday, December 15, 2009


In Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness," the author suggests a simple exercise: Each morning upon rising, sit comfortably at the edge of your bed, close your eyes, inhale deeply and exhale, and then slowly form a half-smile. (You can do this now, sitting on your chair.) It has been my experience that, not only is it nearly impossible to stop at a half-smile, during the process (as the smile triggers muscles in the whole face) the brain becomes infused with the feeling of well-being associated with a smile. The mind follows the physical leading of the body.

I experience a similar mind-body connection when I read John Masefield's "Cargoes." Usually when reading a poem out loud one tries to avoid the sing-song rhythm and artificial line endings in order to read it "for meaning." With this poem, however, the rhythm cries out for emphasis, and carries the reader along. It's as though a deeper meaning of this poem is in the rhythm itself. It's fun to read, and it has an effect something like that hard-to-control half-smile.

   Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
   Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
   With a cargo of ivory,
   And apes and peacocks,
   Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

   Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
   Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
   With a cargo of diamonds,
   Emeralds, amethysts,
   Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

   Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack,
   Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
   With a cargo of Tyne coal,
   Road-rails, pig-lead,
   Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

The drum-beat of the poem builds from the mysteriously dignified and majestic "quinquereme" with its ivory and peacocks, slows slightly to examine a proud galleon full of diamonds and emeralds and accelerates near the end with a "dirty British coaster" that sounds like a cousin of Little Toot. By the time you get to the last line you're marching knees-up as though in a child's parade, and you want to clap those "cheap tin trays" together like cymbals!

There's a very interesting English-professor discussion of the meaning of this poem here, but, come on, meaning-schmeaning. This is word-play! I'd love to have a brightly illustrated version of this poem to read with my grandson. It would be as much fun as Dr. Seuss, who pulls not just a smile but a full laugh out of me every time I read

   ...snip with snippers! Nip with nippers!
   Clip and clop with clapping clippers.
   Nip and snip with clipping cloppers!
   Snip and snop with snipping snoppers!

Now, can I really go from Masefield to Seuss to Wordsworth? Yes, I can. One of the most beautiful stanzas in the language (it's in Wordsworth's ode to "Lucy") is moving not just because it's beautiful -- but because it, well, moves in us.

   The stars of midnight shall be dear
   To her; and she shall lean her ear
   In many a secret place
   Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
   And beauty born of murmuring sound
   Shall pass into her face.

The genius of Wordsworth's combination of rhyme, meter, alliteration, and spot-on word choice produces a sound just like water tumbling softly over rocks, and causes the rivulets that dance around Lucy's lovely face to dance in and among the cells of our bodies and the synapses of our minds. (In terms of brain development, this is almost literally true, and it is why reading poetry to children is so important.)

If poetry, as Donald Hall has written, is the highest use of our language, it is because it does something to us -- whether with the obvious rhythms and rhymes of "Cargoes" or Dr. Seuss, or, deeper, with the inexhaustible iambic pentameter of "Paradise Lost" or the silent undercurrents of free verse -- it does something. You're reading a dignified English poet and before you know it you're clapping tin trays together and shouting hooray!
"Cargoes" (1917), by John Masefield (1878-1967)
"Happy Birthday To You," (1959), by Dr. Seuss, (1904-1991)
"Three Years She Grew" (1800), by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


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