When I was very young, my mother bought for her six children a set of Collier’s Junior Classics from a door-to-door salesman. It must have taken my parents quite some time to pay it off, but that ten-volume collection of stories, myths, and poems planted a seed that I have been nurturing ever since. There were books of Fairy Tales and Fables from around the world, Stories of Wonder and Magic, Hero Tales, Stories From History, and many other tales and legends to fascinate young minds.
Each book was a different color, each leather-bound, illustrated, and filled with the wonder that words can weave. I don’t know whatever became of the books, but nearly fifty years later I bought a set of them on e-bay. Today they’re among my most prized collections. I think it was in those tales and poems that I first was drawn to the alluring rhythm of words. In the budding imagination of a kid in the Bronx, Lydia Maria Child’s lines from “Thanksgiving Day” with their attendant lilt must have offered a rustic vision:
Over the river and through the wood,
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way
To carry the sleigh
Through the white and drifted snow.
And the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha’s Childhood” enchanted me with their exotic sounds:
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the moon, Nokomis.
A little later, I recall falling under the spell of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Land of Counterpane,” which fed my imagination with its simple metaphors and conditioned my ear with its sinuous rhythms and orderly rhymes:
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
At about this time, an intoxication of rhythm and rhyme came to possess me in our family ritual called "Stage" when gathered at our cousins' house on Hermany Avenue in Castle Hill. With Nana and our parents sitting front row and center, we'd each take a turn "entertaining" the audience with a dance, a song, silly gyrations, or a goofy act worthy of "Ted Mack's Amateur Hour." Cousin Artie, who charmed the audience with his voice and guitar, always garnered the most applause. The rest of us were his opening acts. He still performs today in his 60s as "Party Artie." My act was always the same, yet ever-changing in its litany of rhymes. Years before "The Name Game" was to dazzle the nation, I'd take the stage and chant a string of nonsense rhymes along the lines of "Santa Claus was a turkey, and the turkey's name was Burky, and the burky's name was Furky, and the furky's name was Hurky, and the . . . ," and so on and on in what was to me an endless incantation of mesmerizing rhythm and sound. The audience had to applaud to get me off the stage. I would bow with a relish and take my seat in the audience, awaiting the next act.
But it all began with that set of books. I didn’t know it then, but sprawled upon the floor amid that cornucopia of books, I was becoming attuned to the wonders of the imagination and to the sounds and cadences of language that lift the soul and captivate and move me still. Fortunately, my rhyming repertoire has expanded beyond my "Stage" act, though Cousin Artie still draws a larger crowd.