I’m not sure why I was driven back to poetry when I found out my wife was pregnant with twins. I had studied and written poetry in college, but I hadn’t given it much thought after I graduated. Perhaps, as poet Mark Doty has observed, “[I]t seems almost hardwired into the human nervous system that we turn to heightened language at times of heightened feeling. When we fall in love, when we want to mark an important passage in a life, we turn to poetry.”
If my kids ever needed to turn to poetry, I wanted to start laying down the circuitry. So, on sleepless nights, I’d pull The Norton Anthology of Poetry from the shelf, pace, and read, preparing to hardwire my children by reciting poetry from memory to them.
I tried and failed to memorize “Kubla Khan,” never getting beyond the “sunless sea” and onto the “fertile ground” with its walls and towers and garden. Then I moved on to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Son.” Any expectant parent, fearing the impending sleep deprivation, can appreciate the opening stanza’s invocation of “a strong ghost” to stand guard “That my Michael may sleep sound, / Nor cry, nor turn in the bed / Till his morning meal come round.”
But the poem rolls on and on, stanza after stanza. Despite the spot-on content, it flattened my efforts to commit it to memory. I ended up memorizing Yeats’s six-line ditty “A Drinking Song” instead. The poem is mostly about drinking and dying—wholly inappropriate for newborns—but the length was right.
Congratulating myself on committing Yeats’s bawdy toast to memory, I realized that perhaps I was turning back to poetry not solely for my twin sons, but also for myself. Even in small doses, poetry proved an essential tonic for the raw vulnerability of being a parent—a flayed-open feeling that nothing can prepare you for. This vulnerability takes profound forms: seeing a homeless person shambling along and realizing, as if for the first time, that this person was once a baby who had known love. And it takes mundane forms: all those commercials for cameras, greeting cards, auto insurance, lunchmeat, and fruity snacks that use kids to sell you stuff.
Before my sons were born, both the ads and the homeless person would’ve been met with cynical reserve. As a new parent, both the sledgehammer reality of homelessness and the cloying appeal to parental connection that’s exploited by advertisers move me to the verge of tears. When true misery and bathetic manipulation start to blur, the astringency of poetry helps me sort things out. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s dead-eyed “I know what I know” from “Spring” chastens, as do its lines “Life in itself / Is nothing, / An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.” Stevie Smith’s depiction of being overwhelmed and overcome in “Not Waving but Drowning” provided me with some equanimity, especially the closing lines, “I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning,” which I used as a psychic flotation device.
Poetry offers other benefits for the beleaguered parent. A large part of parenting consists of mindless repetition—changing diapers again, cutting pancakes into triangles again, saying, “How do we ask for things nicely?” again. But poetry uses repetition to sound new depths of meaning and find nuance in sameness. Think of the way the repeating lines of a villanelle take on new shape and significance with each stanza or the way different echoes emerge from “And miles to go before I sleep” at the end of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
The climax of George Garrett’s “Or Death and December,” in which the speaker’s puppy lifts a hind leg to pee for the first time during a frozen morning walk, might seem tailor-made to exhort and comfort parents working to potty-train their kids. But the poem stuck with me because of the description of the wind: “like a deuce-and-a-half, a six-by, a semi / huge with a cold load of growls.” There’s something very reassuring about a resonant phrase like “cold load of growls”—the way it shapes your mouth and prods your tongue. I rolled those words around my mouth so many times during the boys’ first years that they became a fetish for me, verbal worry beads I used to mollify my punch-drunk mind. I have also spent countless hours singing along with and silently repeating a stunning putdown in Lily Allen’s pop song “Shame for You.” I’m still not convinced that “Oh my gosh you must be joking me / if you think that you’ll be poking me” isn’t one of the best couplets ever written. Take that, Robert Browning!
At the level of pure aural pleasure, the differences between “cold load of growls” and the “joking me / poking me” couplet vanish. Both delight me in a way that I see no good reason to question. And it’s at “delight” that, finally, my reciting poetry to my twin sons comes back into the story. I eventually did manage to memorize a poem longer than Yeats’s “A Drinking Song.” Even beset by the frantic brain of the expectant first-time parent, there was one poem I could recite from memory: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
So, soon after the boys were born, in addition to singing to them any hymns, lullabies, pop songs, and show tunes I could remember, I would recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” My having done so may not edify them at all. Exposing them to poetry alone doesn’t presage bright academic futures. It may not even mean they’ll end up falling back on their poetic hardwiring. But, for now, the boys recite from memory Frost’s calm, elegiac poem before we tuck them into bed, though sometimes neither calmly nor elegiacally. (Listen to them on Poems by Heart!) I get chills every time they speak the closing lines. They can also recite from memory three E. E. Cummings poems and have taken a stab at Blake’s “The Tyger.” But we keep coming back to Frost and to the allure and comfort, the bleakness and responsibility of that closing stanza. There’s joy for them in reciting the poem, and reassurance in the repetition. There’s delight beyond measure for my wife and me just to hear our sons grapple with the poem, sink into Frost’s final lines, and then drift off to sleep.