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Poems: the new bedtime ritual

There are no more bedtime stories for my son. Instead, we indulge in some poetry.   | Photo Credit: Mihir Balantrapu

There are no more bedtime stories for my son. We’ve never done the traditional ‘read a book before bed’ thing. He’s always requested made-up stories involving whichever character caught his imagination at the time. While we're relieved not to have to make up a new tale about the Transformers or Thomas & Friends every night, we miss not having a few minutes of silly fun before sleep.

At 10, my son wants to be left alone to “dream”. While bedtime cuddles are still mandatory, the stories are not.

I recently suggested a new ritual, not knowing how he’d take it. ‘Bedtime poetry’ was going to involve me reading one little poem aloud. This could be a children’s poem or something more... mature. We began with school favourites – English poets like Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson (“I know him,” said my son), and Robert Frost. Google very helpfully threw up other poets for children — some familiar, some new. I copied individual poems and downloaded others on to my e-reader like Twosomes by Marilyn Singer, a cute little ode to love in verse. There were books in the house which we had, but didn’t think of as “poetry” — Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl and TS Eliot’s hilarious and magical Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

My son’s reaction to this nightly dose has been unexpected. He loves the random choices, and some poems are now favourites. I’ve had requests for some repeats, like Macavity the Mystery Cat by TS Eliot, Eugene Field’s A Dutch Lullaby (also known as Wynken, Blynken and Nod) and interestingly, William Blake’s The School Boy which complains, “But to go to school in a summer morn / O! it drives all joy away”. I can see the attraction to that one.

Poems: the new bedtime ritual

Navigating verses

Choosing poems is more than just downloading a Google-recommended book, though. Even within these books, the choices are plenty. Some nights, I choose the poem; other nights, my son scrolls through and picks a title that catches his eye. We’ve found that just like how you should not judge a book by its cover, not all titles match your expectations of the poem.

Of course, some poems are “boring” or beyond his current comprehension. We’ve stopped mid-way when he says, “I don’t like this; could you read another one?” And there is Singer’s Twosomes where we enjoyed the tiny poems and the illustrations very much. I had to read the whole book in one sitting, though. Twice. (“That’s too short. Could I have more?”). I also have to pay attention to my own voice as well, to make the sentences flow. It’s a learning experience all around. And a poignant one, at the same time.

At 10, my son, burdened with news of climate change, war and violence, thinks a lot about Armageddon, tsunamis, and his parents dying suddenly. I choose happy poems consciously, so he falls asleep with thoughts of beloved cats or a funny verse on his tongue. This way, the last thing he hears at night is something sweet, meaningful and fun. There are no more fighting robots or mean-spirited trains to accompany him into sleep

Sometimes, we come across an innocuous line or metaphor that he questions me about. “What does that mean?” is a nightly refrain, one that makes my poet’s heart happy because it means he is paying attention.

Poems: the new bedtime ritual

Beyond the book

When we read Escape at bedtime by Robert Louis Stevenson, we discussed this line: “And all that glittered and winked in the dark. The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all, And the star of the sailor, and Mars…”. We talked about the stars, about dark skies and light pollution. We talked about constellations and how we should go stargazing, maybe when we visit my grandmother’s house near Mangalore where the trees of the forest touch the inky-black sky studded with glow-worms and shining stars.

Would we have had this discussion without the influence of poetry? Maybe, but it would have been tinged with the darkness of environmental disaster, not the loveliness of poetic imagery.

I’m happy that he’s enjoying a new world of writers and poets. He’s impressed that Indian poets like Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Adil Jussawalla show up in an international compilation and I make a mental note to find more of them. When I read him Eunice de Souza, he’s awed that she was my teacher in college.

Funnily, poetry spills over into the daytime as well, as in the case of Deer by Anna Jackson (from the volume Catullus for Children) where the parent tries to wrangle a hundred thousand more kisses from the child before school. My son finds this hilarious and on mornings when he is grumpy or pre-occupied at the school gate, I say ‘Deer’ to him and he laughs out loud, the secret joke a thread between us until he’s back home.

I was a poet long before I began writing prose for a living. Poetry kept me going after my father died suddenly when I was 18. He was only 46. My grief overflowed into notebooks and over 300 pages of verse. My friends in college indulged my poetic attempts. For my 20th birthday, they gave me a beautiful hardbound four-volume set of haiku, which opened up another world to me. They are still with me, sharing space with other volumes of poetry I’ve collected over the years. Maybe one of these nights, it will be their turn at our bedside. And the magic of those regimented syllables will bring joy and pleasure to a new generation.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 7:14:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/bedtime-poetry-no-more-bedtime-stories/article29234092.ece

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