First Reader

First Reader

I've been slowly making my way through Billy Collins's excellent Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems.

And when I say slowly I mean I read exactly one poem on Saturday and one poem on Sunday. I go this slowly partly as a way of showing my reverence to the work, knowing so well how much time and effort the poet puts into every single line. Though I also go slowly because I can't really handle more than that, especially with someone like Billy Collins. His work seems so casual, light, and accessible but really, at least for me, is so packed and loaded that I typically spend the entire day or more buried under all the weight of what I've read.

Such was truly the case this weekend when I came to the poem "First Reader"in the collection.

Wow! What a piece of work.

Collins hooks me, reels me in, and then proceeds to whack me right between the eyes with the final couplet. I never saw it coming.

The hook

I can see them standing politely on the wide pages that I was still learning to turn

"Them" of course is "Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon brown hair."

Why am I hooked right here? Because the memory of learning to read in the 1st grade with the Dick and Jane readers is one of the most profound, maybe the most profound, memories of my entire childhood. To this day I can feel the intense, surprising joy I felt when I realized that I was reading. I could read! Me! Right there with those words "on the wide pages." How absolutely incredible.

The reeling in.

…even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate, and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes. It was always Saturday…

Yes! For me Dick and Jane comes before everything else. Learning to read with those two and their friends in the town is the point 0.0 on my personal knowledge acquisition timeline. Yes, I learned things before, important things, too--learning to walk, to talk, to skate, to tie my shoes and so on--but learning to read was the inception point to something else entirely. Or as Collins puts it:

"…now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking permutations of the alphabet’s small and capital letters."

I can vividly remember coming home that day I learned to read and excitedly telling my Mom and Dad about it and then that same evening1 my dad did something that totally blew my mind 6 year old mind&#mdash;He took me to our town's public library. Unbelievable! I'll never forget the smell, and to this day the smell of a library warms me with nostalgia and a feeling of "always Saturday" where possibility stretches out towards infinity. And, of course, the books. The books! And, as the librarian showed my dad and me, a whole section just for beginning readers like myself. Unbelievable! I signed out 3 books that evening and read them over and over and over whenever and wherever I had a chance, including at the breakfast table where one morning I accidentally smeared some jam on one of the pages and had a near panic attack that I'd be banished from the library when my act of malfeasance was discovered. As it goes, my mom was able to remove the stickiness, if not the raspberry red stain, and I returned those 3 and signed out another 3 and on and on it has gone ever since.

I love reading. And being left alone with plenty of time and a book I can't put down I count as one of the greatest pleasures of life. Ah, but there's the rub...

The whacking on the head.

Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks, we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.

Whack! How many times have I forgot to look, forgot to live, because I was head down in a book? It's like I read somewhere by someone I can't remember whom said something like, "You don't want to be the poet, you want to be the guy leading the life the poets write about."

So I've been thinking that over all weekend, and I doubt I'll ever sit down with a book, or as it goes these days, my Kindle, and not think about this "First Reader" poem by Billy Collins and its admonishment about "forgetting how to look."

What a great poem.

1 In my memory it is the same evening, but it very well could have been a few days or even a few weeks after that initial inflection point of learning to read in 1st grade. And now that I think of it, it had to have been spring because the days were long enough that it was still light, twilight but light, as I recall, when my dad and I walked into the library that first time together. As an overachiever I want to say I learned to read in the fall of first grade rather than at the end of term in the spring, but who knows? My memory suggests both occurred in spring.