COLUMN: The Roots of Rhythm

By Karin Schimke

Worker’s Day was filled with chores. I was folding the washing when my daughter asked me whether she could read me “The Highwayman”, a poem by Alfred Noyes. (To see some artists’ impressions from the poem click here.)

I haven’t read or thought of the poem for many years, its narrative long forgotten. My daughter, having heard it read by her teacher, read in a mesmerising tone, the ancient, story-telling voice, which like music and rhythm, is hard-wired into our responsive brains.

Resistance was futile.

“He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there/but the landlord’s black-eyed daughter/Bess, the landlord’s daughter/plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.”highway3

My hands had ceased folding and I was there on that “purple moor”, at that landlord’s inn. By the time King George’s men arrived, I might have – had I paused to take stock – noticed, a subtle vibration under my skin. Not just of rising tension about the soldiers’ menacing arrival (and the universal fear of all women everywhere when a band of men darkens the doorway) but an almost physical straining towards what happens next.

Later on Labour Day I went for a run. I recently found a way to motivate myself to run for longer: I pick an album and listen to it in its entirety, something I haven’t indulged in much since I was a student. I picked Paul Simon’s Graceland album, which I’ve not listened through since my student days.

I was running, singing in my head and planning the next day’s performance of poetry at my daughter’s school. The lyrics from the song “Under African skies” broke through the endorphine haze: “This is the story of how we begin to remember/This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein/After the dream of falling and calling your name out/these are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain”.

For the second time in one day “the best words in the best order” – as Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained poetry – snuck up and raised goosebumps from their indifferent slumber on my arms.

I do not know, I never will, what precisely poetry is. What is it meant to do? Why it is so consistently and amply and richly written when its spread amongst the general population is so thin, when so few people read it for pleasure because (they usually claim) they don’t “get it”. Why do these same people turn towards it when they “need” a poem for a funeral or a birth or a marriage?

I will never know what poetry is. Yet this morning I will be visiting a school to talk about poetry. I will perform “Jabberwocky” and perhaps recite “The Witches’ Chant” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or “Tarantella” by Hilaire Belloc or “On The Ning Nang Nong” by Spike Milligan, to a bunch of ten-year olds.

I can bet that not one of them will “get” every poem. But I also know, from often having spoken to children about poetry, that they will be rapt. They will pay attention simply because resistance will be futile. They will be slaves of the best words in the best order. They will know without knowing that they’ve seen poetry for what it is: outrageous, subversive, puzzling stuff that makes your skin tingle and brain fire like a newly oiled machine; that makes space for quiet awe, or unrolls a festival of raucous wolf-whistling and laughing.

Because no-one will have told them yet that they are required to beat the meaning out of a poem in order to “get” it, they’ll be free to just feel it.

I will hold my thumbs tightly that somewhere along the road to adulthood, they don’t learn to un-feel it.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2013
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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