Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Highwayman

When my Dad offered to read to us as kids, we would run to the yellow bookcase in the den to haul out his tattered school reader with its scuffed and worn cover. Asfor many school texts of those times, previous owner’s names were scrolled across the fly leaf. A fat book without illustrations, its bindings were held together precariously with string, but it’s memory was intact and it would fall open at our favourites, one of which was The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes.

From years of doing readings in one-room schools and rural homes without electricity which came to the prairies in the 1950s, my father’s recitations were polished and mesmerizing, his voice sonorous and mellifluous and the phrases paced and evocative. He had as well a real gift for voices and would read Little Bateese by William Henry Drummond in French Canadian dialect. His readings, a form of performance art before we knew what it even was, created a magic net I can still recall with clarity. Both he and my mother read to us from the Grimms Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, but it was the poems we really loved.

It was only later when I encountered The Highwayman in school as a teen that I realized how brutal an event it portrays. For me as a child, it was about the magic of the purple moor, the highwayman in his velvet coat with lace at the chin, tlot tlot of the horses hooves, the marching of King George’s men and the landload’s black-eyed daughter plaiting a love knot into her long black hair.

While I think as kids we only take in what we can absorb at the time and make sense of, it seems to me now that kids also absorb the real meaning or true sense of a story rather than the specific details. I find now I have returned back to my original understanding and appreciation of the poem, the repetitions capturing the movement and wonder.

I read The Highwayman as interpretive poetry at Toastmasters and was stuck by how much is involved in reading poetry well, getting the cadence, the rhythm, rhyme, flow and meaning clear. The Toastmaster’s manual has a lot of good suggestions about capturing the skill and it opened my eyes to what a truly wonderful gift my father had. It also served to bring home to me again how important is not only what we say and how we word it but how we say it especially our tone and timbre.



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