The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 6, No 1 (2002)

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Kathleen Bailey, column editor


The Quicksilver Poetry of Everyday Life

Kathleen Bailey


Poetry slides through everyday life, but is not always visible to the eye, though it runs like quicksilver, and can be glimpsed occasionally in the deep blue shadows as evening appears. At this border between day and night, it is easier to look backward in time.

The events of the last few months have made me very thoughtful. I was privileged to be a quiet observer at a poetry reading by Dennis Lee on September 12th, 2001. How does a creative artist come to rejoice in the power of language and share it, even as senses are numbed by unimaginable violence? I watched him as he gathered his energy to speak with two classes of Grade Three students from Park School. He had recently been appointed the first poet laureate for Toronto, and this reading was part of the launch at Toronto Reference Library.

Dennis Lee said quietly: "This is a day of celebration in one way, and in another, it's a very sad day. Does anyone know why?" Several hands went up slowly, and then one child's voice said: "A plane flew into a building." Dennis answered quietly: "Yes -- that was a very mean thing for people to do." And so, meeting children with honesty and sorrow, Dennis Lee began his reading, satisfied that he had communicated with the children, and acknowledged their sharp awareness of the devastating events of the previous day.

As I listened to Lee's poems dance out to the eagerly listening children, I fell into a reverie, thinking about this inner city school, where children are from diverse cultures, and share a playground beside high rise apartment towers. The sound of their voices, singing, shouting, and bouncing as they run, spirals up to the sky. Many have immigrated from around the world, making the move from Zaire, Bangladesh, Somalia to the heart of Cabbagetown, which has long been a receiving community for new Canadians. This area was dubbed Cabbagetown in the late 1840s when Irish immigrants grew cabbages in their kitchen gardens.

My grandmother taught at Park School from 1914 to 1917, just after the "new school" was built. Her mother kept a boarding house for railwaymen, who crisscrossed Canada on shining rails. When Winnifred Taylor came to teach at Park School, it was an imposing building, with wide halls, and stained glass windows enclosing the kindergarten. Often the children lived in houses which were cobbled together, where doors opened into a maze of dusty lanes. It was the time of the Great War, and families here were British immigrants, with little money. It was not uncommon for each class to have fifty students in it. Over half the children did not pass into the next form each year, and children often missed school. How did she inject poetry, the magic of words and their power into their lives? Food and shelter were the pressing concerns. It was a challenge for a green teacher from the country, whose feisty mother had pushed her daughters to finish school.

But she persisted for three years, freeing their imaginations to see far beyond the known world. Then came her marriage, and what seemed to be the end of her time as a teacher. Her creativity was poured out in painting, sketching the Haliburton lakes and hills. My memories of her include lines from Wordsworth, which she would offer to me as I paddled her by canoe up the lake. Winnifred was a dreamer and a painter, who gave all the children she met her delight in powerful words.

The ritual at the cottage included reading stories from an anthology called Wonder Tales of Giants and Dwarfs. My favourite was "Jack the Giant Killer." I would wait to hear her voice deepen and suddenly growl, "You villain! How dare you wake Cormoran? You shall pay dearly for this; I will broil you on a spit and eat you for breakfast!" I still shiver happily as I remember the deliciously scary roar of the giant: "Fee, fi, fo fum!/ I smell the blood of an Englishman. / Be he alive, or be he dead,/ I'll grind his bones to make my bread!" No watered down fairy tales for my grandmother! She revelled in sharing the stories, and I, at five, gloried in seeing fearsome giants defeated.

Poetry. The quicksilver ways of words, sliding from one mind to another. People who love the power of words become wordsmiths, or encourage others to relish the diversity of human creativity. My grandmother lived through the Great War, and then the Second World War, carrying hope forward as she read to children. This fall, Dennis Lee journeyed upon the road of hope, not ignoring the tragedy unfolding, but knowing that his role as a poet was to joy in human beings and their foibles, sharing his creations.

As I watched, Dennis began to play with the way poems can have a fearful, yet comic edge. He chanted "In Kamloops,/I'll eat your boots,/ In the Gatineaus,/ I'll eat your toes" and swooped amongst the children, sailing words amidst a sea of giggles. This poem came from his classic collection, Alligator Pie. Then he rolled on to "The Faithful Donut" from a newer collection, Bubblegum Delicious. With great deliberation, he declaimed, "Far across the ocean,/ Far across the sea,/ A faithful jelly donut / Is waiting just for me." As he went on with the ridiculous picture of a donut pining on a far off shore, the children's faces lit up with laughter. Words bounced around them, filling the air with rhythm and rhyme.

Lee told the children about his newest book, The Cat and the Wizard, mentioning that part of this poem is set in Casa Loma. Toronto's own castle (Spanish for House on the Hill) was built by Sir Henry Pellatt in 1921. The towers loom over the city, inviting dreams. As a meticulous wordsmith, Lee has been reworking this poem, which is also found in his more adult anthology, The Difficulty of Living on Other Planets and in Nicholas Knock and Other People. In the new version, Gillian Johnson has created wonderful illustrations that enhance the mixture of humour and sadness that permeate the poem. A treat is in store, beginning with the first lines:

A Senior wizard
Of high degree
With a special diploma
In wizardry
Is trudging along
At the top of the street
With a scowl on his face
And a pain in his feet.

As Lee finished his reading with "Alligator Pie", a surprise was waiting for him. A small girl in a head scarf sprang to her feet, and brought her classmates up in a group to chant their original verse for Alligator Pie. The rhythm of the words had entered their bones, as they bounced through the lines, and watched a giant grin spread across Dennis Lee's face. Here was his reward, to see children carrying laughter and hope away with them on a September afternoon.

Bibliography

Bureau of Municipal Research. Park School. 52 p., ill. Toronto: 1921.

Lee, Dennis. Alligator Pie. Illus.by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974.

Lee, Dennis. Bubblegum Delicious. Illus. by David McPhail. Toronto: Key Porter, 2000.

Lee, Dennis. The Cat and the Wizard. Illus. by Gillian Johnson. Toronto: Key Porter, 2001.

Lee, Dennis. The Difficulty of Living On Other Planets. Illus. by Alan Daniel. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1987.

Lee, Dennis. Nicholas Knock and Other People: Poems. Illus. by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974.

McAree, John Verner. Cabbagetown Store. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1953.

Murtagh, Janet, reteller. Wonder Tales of Giants and Dwarfs. Illus. by Florian. New York: Random House, 1945.

Rust-D'Eye, George H. Cabbagetown Remembered. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 1984.

 

Useful Links

Dennis Lee's home page (last updated 1997): http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/lee

Key Porter Books. This site has an article about Dennis Lee being nominated by the Canadian section of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) for the Hans Christian Andersen award: http://www.keyporter.com

Nelson Mandela Park School. Park School had a visit from Nelson Mandela in fall 2001, and now it is called Nelson Mandela Park School, in recognition of the ideals and dreams which led this school to fundraise from its diverse community for the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund: http://www.tdsb.on.ca/MOSS/asp_apps/school_landing_page/index.asp?schno=5261



Kathleen Bailey is a children's librarian who joys in watching the children romp through her library in Toronto, and attempts to send each one out the door with a pile of books.


Volume 6, Issue 1, The Looking Glass,, 2002

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"The Quicksilver Poetry of Everyday Life" © Kathleen Bailey, 2002.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680