National Poetry Month, day 7: On Memorizing, Mrs. Havers, and Frost on Punkins

When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Havers, required us to memorize and recite a poem.

That was bad enough. I’ve never really understood the pedagogical value of this exercise, but my teachers were all deeply conservative in their approaches to teaching that they literally handed out the same tests each and every year (which led to another teacher having to scramble one year when we protested that we hadn’t actually covered what was on the test she handed out).

Even worse was that Mrs. Havers required us all to memorize and recite the same poem. So there we were, spending an entire class session, maybe two, listening to the same damned poem, over and over again, twenty-five times or however many times it took to get through each kid in the class.

We did this twice, that I recall. The second time was “The Night Before Christmas”, but the first was…oh look, I’m not gonna be nice here, OK? I hate this poem. I hated from the first second Mrs. Havers recited it to us, and I hated it through all the time I spent learning it and the time I sat in class listening to it over and over again.

It’s a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, a prolific poet who apparently wrote a great deal of sentimental poetry that was usually cast in some kind of dialect. This poem is no different. It’s got a kind of cornpone charm, I suppose. I know, I’m not being fair to this poem. It’s probably perfectly fine, but the circumstances with which I came to it beat it into my head and I formed a dislike to it that deepened to the point of being instinctive. At least I’ve driven all of it from my mind since fall of 1983…except for the first line. That ain’t goin’ anywhere, and believe me, I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried, and I’ve got the empty bottles to prove it.

Here it is: “When the Frost is On the Punkin”:

OK, wait a minute.

Obviously, I didn’t just copy-and-paste the poem here. I mean, I did do that, but I didn’t do it without reading the damned thing through once, just to see if I remembered anything other than the first line. And I honestly did not…but damned if I didn’t find this poem’s rhythm again. It’s very insistent, the rhythm here. You can’t avoid it.

I also found something else. I started hearing a voice as I read this thing. But it wasn’t my voice, and it wasn’t Mrs. Havers’s. It was…John Denver’s.

I’m serious.

As I read this, prepared to mock anew the bumpkin dialect Mr. Riley used, I found myself remembering a couple of John Denver songs in which he, too, sang in this kind of way: “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “Grandma’s Feather Bed”.

Thing is…I love those songs, partly because of their country wisdom, their illustration of a particular kind of life sketched perfectly in few words, and their infectious rhythm.

And I started to wonder if…maybe…this was another instance of my seventh-grade self having been full of crap, and my failure over all the years since then to really interrogate those beliefs.

Maybe.

Just maybe.

Here’s the poem, “When the Frost is On the Punkin”.

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin’ sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover over-head!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’ ’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! …
I don’t know how to tell it—but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me
I’d want to ’commodate ’em—all the whole-indurin’ flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Sigh.

I may owe Mrs. Havers an apology on this one.

Maybe.

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