Read verse and make merry: Celebrating National Poetry Day with Janet Ruth Heller

“You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket,” John Adams once told his son.

I recently discovered this wonderful quote in David McCullough’s John Adams, but it was a lesson I learned at a young age and have carried with me my entire life.

A collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, along with a compilation of 100 great poems, sits on my bedside table. I thumb through the volumes from time to time, stopping at random and allowing the words to roll over my tongue, soothing my mind with their rhythm and imagery.

One day, Emily tells me, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” and on another William Carlos William says, “much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water.”

So when I heard about National Poetry Day, I was ready for a celebration, despite the fact that it’s a British event and I’m very much located in middle-America.

And I couldn’t think of a better way to get the festivities rolling than a chat with an actual poet, the second part of my interview with my poet-friend Janet Ruth Heller.

Happy National Poetry Day everyone! Now read some verse and make merry!

Here’s Janet…

Tell me about your favorite author… What is it that really strikes you about his or her work?

I love the work of many authors. My earliest favorite author was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I have loved his poetry since I was in seventh grade. He was one of the first writers to use colloquial language in poetry, especially in his “conversation poems.” He can also tell stories in magical ways in works like “Christabel” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Also, he can use sounds in enthralling ways in poems like “Kubla Khan.”

Most authors are usually introduced to writing at a young age. Where did your love for books come from?

My mother and my elementary school teachers read me many excellent books when I was a child. I liked the way that authors like Rudyard Kipling used words and sound patterns. I could listen to stories for hours.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

In 1972, I had a five-month love relationship with a man. I started writing poems about him every week. After he broke up with me, I was devastated. Writing poems helped me to cope with my feelings and heal. I started writing much more frequently than in the past. By the mid-1970s, I was publishing poems, literary criticism, and essays in journals with national distributions.

Where do you find inspiration?

Any unfairness in my society and in the world prompts me to write about it and to become involved in organizations to remedy the situation. For example, I started a union of nontenure-track faculty at Western Michigan University and have published scholarly essays about ways to improve conditions for adjuncts and better methods for evaluating adjuncts. I also love nature, sports, foreign languages, and words in general. I often write about these topics, too.

And now for a not-so-serious shift in the conversation…

What literary character is most like you?

When I was a child, I identified with Phoebe Jackstraw in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm by Betty MacDonald because I shared many of Phoebe’s fears. As an adult, I am more like Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m smart, but I often misunderstand people, as Elizabeth does.

If you could have any accents from anywhere in the world, what would you choose?

I love the beauty of the Spanish language. I double-majored in English and Spanish as an undergraduate, and I have about one-third of a master’s degree in Spanish literature. The language is very poetic and easy to rhyme.

The wolves howled; the wind sighed: I had a mother who read to me

Television didn’t interest me much when I was young–still doesn’t.  It couldn’t compete with the live entertainment available daily at my house: wolves howled; a spider spoke; and children discovered a magical wardrobe.

wolvesThe Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Narnia Chronicles, Charlotte’s Web  and many other books lived through my mother’s readings. Each page brought a new sight and sound as if the story were actually developing right there in our house. Characters even had distinctive voices, and if my mother deviated from them, my sister and I protested, which I’m sure was extremely annoying. But she never complained. We cried together when Charlotte died, and my sister and I spent many happy hours playing in my parent’s wardrobe, looking for an entrance to Narnia. lion

So, as Mother’s Day approaches, I’m extremely thankful that I had a mother who read to me. I can’t imagine a better gift than a lifelong love of books: “You may have tangible wealth untold, caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be–I had a Mother who read to me.” (Read the poem in its entirety below).

ChalotteThe Reading Mother
by Strickland Gillilan*

I had a mother who read to me
Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea,
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth,
“Blackbirds” stowed in the hold beneath.

I had a Mother who read me lays
Of ancient and gallant and golden days;
Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,
Which every boy has a right to know.

I had a Mother who read me tales
Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,
True to his trust till his tragic death,
Faithfulness blent with his final breath.

I had a Mother who read me the things
That wholesome life to the boy heart brings–
Stories that stir with an upward touch,
Oh, that each mother of boys were such!

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be–
I had a Mother who read to me.

From Your Daily Poem: Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954) was an American humorist, lecturer, and poet. Born in Ohio, Strickland started out as a journalist and worked for several different newspapers, including the Washington Post. While on staff at the Richmond Daily Palladium, he wrote a humorous poem about an Irish railroader that ended up in Life Magazine and led to swift national acclaim. Credited with writing the world’s shortest poem–“Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes”(subtitled “Fleas”): “Adam/Had ‘em.”–as well as one of the world’s most anthologized poems (this one), Strickland produced a huge body of work during his lifetime. He traveled the country for years, entertaining enthralled audiences with his witty novels, satirical essays, rollicking songs, and heartwarming poetry.