Early Poetry Imprinting

Newly hatched goslings imprint on the first moving object they see, which usually is Mother Goose.  Mother Goose nursery rhymes are the usual way children are introduced to poetry. I’m sure I had my share of exposure to these rhymes in my preschool days. Most children grow away from the rhythms of the poetic line in later childhood, preferring the pace of prose or the lyrics of popular music. My first love in literature is poetry. I came to writing poems before novels or short stories. Looking back on my childhood, two influences played a major role in my enduring love of this art form, which survived the rigors of high school explication and the incomprehensibility of post-modernism.

From third to eight grade, I was a Girl Scout. My Girl Scout leader was Mrs. Xenia Denoyer (1893-1976). She was already in her sixties when she led our troop in Wheeling, Illinois. A white-haired, stocky lady, she was married to the cartographer Philip Denoyer, whose maps hung in many schoolrooms of the day. The Denoyers owned a farm called Singing Grove located near my home, which they had turned into a Girl Scout camp. A large white, green-shuttered ranch house was their residence. For the Girl Scouts they built a log cabin with a big fireplace and loft sleeping area. Mrs. Congdon, the assistant Girl Scout leader, was a British lady who worked in the ladies’ lingerie department of Spiegel Department Store. She stated her profession as corsetiere. To my young imagination, Mrs. Congdon was as fascinating as the Denoyers. She exerted a strong influence on the doings of the scouts, for the large field next to the cabin was named the Plains of Runnymede, the outhouse White Hall, and the cabin Canterbury. Mrs. Denoyer  loved trees and under her forceful tutelage we earned our tree badge. On a tour of the camp, she identified all the trees she had planted. She was particularly proud of her gingko biloba. A special treat during the camping week was the evening the girls spent in the ranch house watching Mrs. Denoyer’s home movie of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The two women had attended the event in 1953 and considered it a highpoint in their lives.

Another treat, which not all the girls considered one, was evenings around the fireplace in the log cabin when Mr. Denoyer was invited to recite poetry to us. If Mrs. Denoyer was old, her husband was ancient. If she was in her sixties, he must have been in his eighties.  My research revealed that he formed the Denoyer-Geppert map company in 1916, that he retired from the company in 1947, and that he died in Wheeling in 1964 at age 88. His raspy voice reciting Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” impressed me as the enactment of a profound rite at which I was privileged to be present. Trees and poetry forever became linked in my consciousness as somehow connected with the religious experience. I wanted to crack the sacred code of poetry. It was mysterious and suffused with an aura of wisdom. Mr. Denoyer, who loved to memorize poetry, was my first influence.

The second influence was the nun who was my teacher in both seventh and eighth grades. I remember her requiring us to memorize Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and Oliver Wendell Holmes “Old Ironsides.” We read Holmes’ “The Chambered Nautilus,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” The Bells,” and “Annabel Lee.” Sister Mary Pearce fed my desire to discover more poetry, preparing me for the banquet of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne and Tennyson and others that I would encounter in high school. I had the pleasure of meeting her again in 2001. She is still alive and well. During that meeting, she informed me she was twenty-seven at the time she taught seventh and eight graders and that she did not have a bachelor’s degree. Yet she was the most memorable, inspiring, and motivating grade school teacher I had. Her teaching was rigorous–no Mickey Mouse lessons in her classroom of fifty-three baby boomers.

Trees, poems, and exploration of nature ordained my eventual path to Montana. Singing Grove is no more. The Denoyer farm is now a housing subdivision, but my first love remains with me to this day, thanks to the Denoyers and one Catholic nun.

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