I can’t help but hear my grandfather’s voice in my head as I read this snippet. It’s a widely known children’s verse, the first stanza of a longer poem from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1885 collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses.
"My Shadow" is a poem that’s been read aloud countless times in countless settings, so beloved to children and adults alike that most people probably can’t remember where they heard it first. Countless voices have given it life over the last century and a half. Still, in my readings, the voice is always my grandfather’s.
Poetry helps us remember.
I should mention that my grandfather passed away when I was six years old. As one would expect, I don’t remember many details about him. But poetry has always been the clearest way for me to remember his voice.
This is the power of a poem - it stays with us. Poems have an appeal similar to aphorisms (concise statements of general truth, like “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”): they move an idea from point A to point B via a catchy soundbite. They are portable. We can show poems off on command, both impressing our friends and skipping the long process of trying to put our own words to a thought.
(At least, this is the joy I find in memorizing poems. Nerdy? For sure. But it sure makes me look like I know more than I do.)
Poems grow with us as we age.
I would argue, though, that unlike coffee-cup slogans or t-shirt catch phrases, poems grow with us as we age. As children, a poem can speak to us on a certain level, and then a different level as adolescents, different still as young adults, and so on. Clearly, they spoke to my grandfather over the course of his entire life, ever his companion, just like Stevenson’s little shadow.
What better way, then, to teach our children to love words and books? What better way to ensure that their lives are interwoven with reading than to give them words they can be proud to remember, books that remind them of all the love and joy they know and have yet to discover?
Poetry from connections.
Poetry blossoms from connections we make between the world and ourselves, and I can’t think of a better way to teach our children empathy and creativity than to show them these connections and explore them together. And, with poetry as with all books, reading to our children can remind us of what grounded us most when we were their age, and what can ground us still.