This evening – Friday 15th April – will be the beginning of Passover, when Jewish families all over the world will be sitting down to the Passover Seder. Every year, the Passover story is told. How we, the Jewish people, were once slaves in Egypt and are now free.
Jesus, who of course was Jewish – as were his disciples – was celebrating the Passover meal (Seder) at The Last Supper.
With everything else going on in the world, I somehow managed to miss International Poetry Day on 21st March.
I feel I should be saying or writing something profound.
I don’t have a new poem to offer you. But some interesting news.
It seems that people who have dementia respond to poetry – sometimes with just a smile or a flicker of recognition. Sometimes even joining in with the words.
This does not surprise me. Those of us who learned poems as kids can often still recite them – even when we can’t remember the title of the book we last read – or even what we had for dinner the night before!
I remember how at our daughter’s wedding ceremony we were all moved to tears when my son-in-law’s grandfather, who had dementia, seemed to respond to the familiar words and melodies. I had also seen it when prayers were said in the synagogue at his nursing home. Elderly people – many of them with dementia – joining in with the songs and the familiar prayers. Sometimes mouthing the words or even saying them out loud. It was amazing to see.
So yes, there is power in poetry, prayer and music. To these things that we all hold inside us.
When it’s my turn, I want Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilfred Owen, Leonard Cohen and also to hear the cherished voices of my own children and grandchildren.
So, to celebrate National Poetry Day, let’s all learn a poem by heart today – and tell it to our children tomorrow.
Here’s an easy one to remember from Robert Louis Stevenson:
As Kyle sang in South Park: “It’s hard to be a Jew at Christmas.”
Growing up, Christmas to me always felt like I was looking into a toy shop or sweet shop window at things I couldn’t have.
I enjoyed the Christmas parties and the festivities – still do – but, being Jewish, I always felt like the outsider at the party.
At home, growing up, we neither celebrated Xmas nor Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, which takes place around the same time. Father Christmas didn’t visit Jewish children and my parents treated Christmas just like any other day.
When I had children of my own, not wanting them to feel left out, OH (other half) and I experimented briefly with Christmas. We left out mince pies at bedtime and crumbs on the plates when they awoke.
Our children had pillowcases rather than stockings which we filled with goodies. I would stash these away until Christmas Eve. One year our six year old son found my hiding place. He marked all the things he’d found with a felt tip pen so, when they later turned up in his pillowcase, he was able to prove once and for all that Santa did not exist!
As our children grew older, Chanukah replaced Christmas. So our kids wouldn’t feel left out we gave them a gift every day. Something special at the beginning or the end and small presents in-between such as you might put in a stocking. As Chanukah lasts eight days it more than compensated for Christmas!
Each night of Chanukah we light a candle on the special eight branched candlestick known as the Chanukiah or the Chanukah menorah. At the end of the eight days all eight candles are lit. Actually nine – because there is an extra candle on the Chanukah menorah that’s used to light all the others.
There are Chanukah parties, songs, games and special Chanukah foods such as donuts and latkas. A spinning top – “the dreidel” is spun. Raisins are won or lost depending on where it lands.
Our son, when he was seven, wrote a poem about Chanukah:
“How I love to go to bed with the candles shining in my head.
And when I have dreams, how lovely Chanukah seems.”
He’s now a father himself. Each year, until Covid 2020, he and his wife have made a Chanukah party for their children, friends and family. The story of Chanukah is told and acted out with costumes, arts and crafts.
In fact, you could say that we enjoy the best of both worlds!
It was my father, the writer and sports journalist Ralph L Finn, who gave me the love I have of poetry. I am dedicating this post to some of his – and my – favourite poems.
Crossing the bar – Alfred Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep, Too full for sound and foam, When that which drew from out the boundless deep Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark! And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place The flood may bear me far, I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crost the bar.
The next two are favourite poems by Christina Rossetti.
When I am dead, my dearest
When I am dead my dearest
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember
And if thou wilt, forget
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set
Haply I may remember
And haply may forget.
Remember me when I am gone away
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
I read this next poem – another one of his favourites – at my father’s funeral.
Sea Fever – John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
This next one, by Charles Kingsley, was another favourite of his.
Be good, sweet maid, and let who can be clever,
Do noble deeds, not dream them, all day long;
And so make life, death and that vast forever,
One grand sweet song.
It was my father who introduced me to the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson:
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Home he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Finally, just to show that it’s not all doom and gloom, here’s another Robert Louis Stevenson poem. My father used to recite this one to me when I was little. And I in turn, read it to my own children. There is a lovely song by Alison Krauss, “A hundred miles or more” which evokes this poem.
Where go the boats?
Dark brown is the river. Golden is the sand. It flows along for ever, With trees on either hand.
Green leaves a-floating, Castles of the foam, Boats of mine a-boating— Where will all come home?
On goes the river And out past the mill, Away down the valley, Away down the hill.
Away down the river, A hundred miles or more, Other little children Shall bring my boats ashore.
Robert Louis Stevenson
A last apt word from one of my father’s favourite quotations:
For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks – not that you Won or Lost but How You Played the Game. (Grantland Rice)