Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Twilight Zone, Spelling, and Poetry

In 4th Grade my bed time was 8:00pm. Maybe 8:30 on a special night. This was good for my parents and bad for me. Everyone I knew stayed up later. They got to watch shows I only knew from their stories or from listening to the tv from my upstairs bedroom when my parents were watching in the 2nd living room. We had, like all our friends, a black and white tv. We got three stations. 3, 6, & 10. My favorite show was Combat but the show I most wanted to see was the Twilight Zone. It was on after my bedtime so I never saw it till I was older but I heard it...in shards, in pieces. This was a show that answered all my story telling needs.
On the way to school the day after a Twilight Zone episode Terry or Chris would tell us about last nights show. About the tank battalion trapped at Custer's Last Stand. About Burgess Meredith in the ruins of WWWIII losing his glasses. About the slot machine that haunted a gambler. Brilliant stories told on the way to school in the fall and winter and spring. The walk to school took perhaps twenty minutes. Eight or nine blocks. Two different routes. On the way to school we usually walked up Mantua Ave and crossed at the proper corner by the park. On the way home we trekked over the railroad bridge and down West Street. All the time telling stories. On the way out the stories of the tv on the way back the stories we invented.
In 4th grade Mr. McIntire made us use our spelling words in a narrative. A story. Each of us tried hard to use the lessons of the Twilight Zone to top the other. Stories of O'Henry filled with irony. Stories of gore and death. Stories to scare ourselves. After a while we stopped caring about the spelling words and cared only about the stories. It was a challenge to top each other. Like poetasters or slam poets or screen writers we wanted to be the best at what we did. I can't remember any of our stories but I know where they all came from.
In 4th and 5th grades and I think in 3rd we were given little yellow booklets with popular poems. Poems from the late 1800's and early 1900's that had a place in the popular imagination. The Frost is O'er the Pumpkin, Trees, etc, etc, etc. We were required to memorize one of these each week and recite them to our peers in class. This too became a challenge. Especially when we were given leave to expand our selections. To move out from the little pamphlets and into the books of poetry that might be in our homes. We were boys. So we found Rudyard Kipling and Stevenson and Tennyson. We craved the poems of gore and horror and tried to top each other with tougher and gorier poems to recite. I memorized The Charge of the Light Brigade and Gunga Din. I mastered The Highwayman. All to top my friends. To show them I was the man.
What an odd pastime. Middle class white kids in the 60's memorizing the heroic dramas of English poets. For glory. For honor. For power.
Years later I read my own poetry out loud at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I had never read my own work out loud. I was, I guess, petrified with terror. But I'd done this before. I knew the drill. When I finished the drunk crowd of Puerto Ricans gave me a standing ovation. I knew it was the thing I wanted to do again more than anything else. The same night a professor of mine read and was booed off the stage. Of course. She didn't know the drill. She was interested in her work, in it's care and concerns. She didn't understand that when you stand up in front of people and read you've got an obligation to deliver. It didn't have to be loud. It didn't have to be hard to understand. It almost didn't have to be good. What it had to be was better than the last poem they heard. Like our stories. Like the poems we chose to memorize. Who knew that Mr. McIntire was preparing me to be a poet. Who knew he was teaching me to love words. Who knew that five little kids walking down the street in Wenonah were learning to be artists.
Not all of us are artists in our real lives. Chris worked for automotive interests. Terry works for health care interests. My brother is in law enforcement. But all of us know how to tell a story and engage an audience and we want that audience to listen and attend.
They always do.

2 comments:

Bob Thomas said...

Jack,

This is great stuff. Please keep writing! I check it everyday.

Please let me know about plans for 2008,too. I'd like to attend.

Thanks,

Bob Thomas

Chris DeHart said...

Forty plus years later, and I'm still hanging on every word. Just your mention of the poetry recitations brought back getting knots in my stomach over trying to remember the words to Paul Revere's ride in front of McIntire's class.

Chris