Reading is often a business of following trails for the love of it. In preparing to discuss Paul Laurence Dunbar with my African-American Poetry course last week, I reviewed Meta DuEwa Jones’ wonderful study The Muse is Music—inspired by that book’s introduction, in fact, I extended our conversation about Dunbar’s vernacular verse by playing recordings of “When Malindy Sings” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1909) and the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln (1961). Jones quoted an essay called “Dunbar Lives!” by Elizabeth Alexander, so I looked it up and it’s wonderful, too. Alexander describes her father reciting Dunbar’s “The Party.” The 19th century poet was on her 20th century “family syllabus.” The same is true, she discovers, for lots of other African-American poets, although reading Dunbar’s work in school seems to be rarer.
I reported Dunbar’s influence to my wonderful students then surprised myself by asking, “What was on your family syllabus?” Blank looks. I don’t entirely believe them; I bet some of their parents and grandparents said, “oh, you have to hear this song/ watch this movie/ read this book,” even if there wasn’t any oral recitation happening in the rec room. I’m sure my spouse and I are more professorial with our kids than many parents, but privilege and education are only part of what might drive family members to share the art they love. My mother and grandmother received half as much formal education as my father or I did—around ten years vs. twenty-plus—but they transmitted much more culture than my father, with the result that, growing up on Long Island and in New Jersey, I felt more connected to my mother’s Liverpool than I did to my father’s childhood home of Brooklyn. My mother handed me books she grew up on, including Austen, the Brontës, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and much odder bits of British children’s fiction (one of these days I have to find and reread Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest). My grandmother also brought books from England (I’m pretty sure Enid Blyton collections were packed in those suitcases alongside the chocolates), and she taught me old songs like “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Neither of them recited poems unless in half-remembered fragments, but my mother recalls the childhood entertainment of her father’s rendition of “Casabianca.” I memorized poems for fun back then, including nursery rhymes and songs from Tolkien’s books; it didn’t seem so weird.
Well, my mother grew up without electricity or indoor toilets, much less television, so through her I’m a generation closer to a necessary, vibrant oral culture than many Americans my age, and perhaps multiple generations closer than most of my students. My own kids were never interested in learning my grandmother’s songs (my off-key singing helped discourage lessons), but they hear Louis Armstrong recite “The Night Before Christmas” every year, and I whiled away many hours of baby-care by singsonging rhymes I’d learned by heart decades earlier. And, by accident and design, sometimes successfully and sometimes to hoots of derision, we introduce them to books and movies and music that shaped us. Sometimes we track down references together: after watching Boy in New Zealand, for example, we showed them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” In a more deliberate way, I read aloud authors I’d loved as a child—Lewis, Le Guin. We played Joss Whedon’s television canon (delight!) and my collection of David Bowie on vinyl (not so much!). My husband indoctrinated the kids in arcane superhero lore and makes CDs of Not to Be Missed Songs of the New Wave. An exclamation such as “What? How can you not know Billie Holiday/ The Matrix/ ‘Kubla Khan’?!” still interrupts dinner pretty often, and out comes the laptop or the anthology. I’m not sure to what extent these family texts teach them who they are, except they surely know they’re nerd-spawn.
I’ve introduced poems, though, less often than you might expect. Setting out a family literary syllabus with educational intent rarely works. My children did not want to hear Yeats before our Ireland trip, although they showed more interest afterwards. My recommending a novel can guarantee the kid won’t read it. Bringing up a poem in a spirit of play, as Alexander’s father did, is much better. What I enjoy most of all is helping my kids follow their own leads. They don’t read a ton of poetry at school, but there was one memorable night they realized they’d learned slightly different versions of an Emily Dickinson poem. I explained about her variants then they immediately launched into an argument about which word choices were better. Voila! Instant English class!
This was a rough week for me—I’m enjoying a bout of sciatica and by the time evening comes, I’m exhausted by pain. (Yoga, heat, and rest this weekend have helped a lot.) It’s been a pleasure, though, to talk books through the haze. A few days ago, Madeleine explained over pasta why Toni Morrison is her favorite author (“the way she gets into the heads of even the most terrible people—a lot of my moral education has come from her. Plus, the sentences”). I suggested to my son, who was between books, that he might be old enough now to enjoy Lev Grossman’s novels, and he announced that, nope, he planned to remain loyal to Austin Grossman, “the superior twin” (every conversation also occasions sibling rivalry). And while taking a practice AP test, Madeleine became distracted by the beauty of “Dover Beach” and wanted to talk to someone about it, so I read it aloud and chatted. “You have a good poetry voice,” my son commented, while apparently absorbed by Terraria on his phone.
And Friday morning, after a week skim-reading a book required for her English class, Heart of Darkness, in a rage over its offensive treatment of Africans, my daughter came downstairs and remarked, “I read this amazing essay by Chinua Achebe and I feel much better.” She resolved to reread Conrad more carefully, adding, “I didn’t know famous authors wrote criticism, too.” “So your teacher didn’t assign the Achebe essay?” we asked. “How did you know about it?” Apparently she just went looking.