My wife, Janie, came early in life to her love of poetry and reading, a gift from her grandmother, Cora Lee Stull Blakeman. “Granny,” who attended a one-room school in the Appalachian section of Kentucky, could recite scores of poems “by heart,” by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman.
Granny also knew the majestic poetry — and prose — of the King James Bible.
She read to Janie from her store of words or, more often, recited them. Janie heard these poems again and again, read them, recited them herself and, like Granny, began to learn them “by heart.”
Janie’s early fare included Mother Goose and children’s books, which her mother, Nancy, joined Granny in reading to her. Her favorite book was Ted Key’s “So ‘m I,” the story of an ugly duckling kind of horse — ”knock-kneed in front and bowlegged in back” — who nevertheless wins the big race.
As a teen, Janie was swept up in the romance of works like Alfred Noyes’, “The Highwayman:”
‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,/The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,/The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor/ ...’”
As her love of words matured, she was drawn to works whose attraction was born of subtler patterns of sound and more complex tales of the human heart. A favorite poem remains T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”
“Let us go then you and I,/ when the evening is spread out against the sky,/like a patient etherized upon a table ....”
Eventually, Janie came to Shakespeare, his iambic pentameter and the dazzling “words, words, words” of Hamlet and others. She spent much time at what is now the New American Shakespeare Tavern. (Janie was married on stage there — I was the fortunate groom — during a run of “Henry V,” which opens: “O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend/the brightest heaven of invention:/A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,/and monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”)
Janie’s joy and pleasure in words continue. She reads classic literature along with much popular fiction and biography. Of greater joy, she herself is now “Granny:” She reads regularly to our Alpharetta grandchildren, 3« year-old twins Zack and Lexi, children of our son, Travis and his wife Pam.
Books are part of our Kentucky grandson’s home life, too. Noah Jr.’s mother, Crystal, and father, Noah, are readers. Noah Sr., now a lawyer, and his siblings, John, who awaits results for his bar exam, and Shelby grew up with a wide range of fiction, history, newspapers and biography. Shelby chose not to follow her brothers into the law, but rode her passion for reading into a passion for the classics of Latin and Greek and a college degree.
Janie holds dear two of Granny’s favorite books.
First, her worn King James Bible, which Janie carries to Pine Crest Baptist Church on Sundays and whose eternal truths are delivered in language that sings to the soul, as in Isaiah 55:
“Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters,/and he that hath no money: come ye, buy, and eat,/yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price./Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread?/and your labor for that which satisfieth not?”
Or one of the Bible’s most widely known passages: “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.”
Second, Granny’s aged copy of “One Hundred and One Famous Poems,” where Janie’s highwayman still rides that “ribbon of moonlight,” Mary Howitt’s spider still invites the fly “into my parlor” and Whitman still laments the death of Abraham Lincoln, “O, Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done ...”
These two volumes are precious heirlooms. Still more precious is the gift of joy and pleasure in words that Granny passed along to Janie, a joy that bound them more tightly together through the years and that Janie is now passing on to another generation.
Learning such a love of reading and words does not require a prolonged formal education. Mostly, it takes love and time from someone who will read and recite to children from their earliest years on. Local libraries, with their wide choice of books and story-telling and reading sessions for children, can lend a hand.
Tack Cornelius is a writer and Gainesville resident. His columns appear monthly and on gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.