When a Poem Gets You


Guernsey, Channel Islands photo by Kristen Allen

I am pretty sure it is a law in New England that all elementary school students must memorize some bit of Robert Frost poetry. Mrs. Burke’s grade 4 reading class went with “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I still can recite it today, complete with a Doris Kearns Goodwin Boston accent.

That wasn’t the poem that hooked me, though. Rather, it was this little bit of gentle verse by Rachel Field, “If Once You Have Slept on an Island.” Field was a children’s author, best known, probably, for her Newbery Award winning story, Hitty, the First Hundred Years, and for her Caldecott winner, Prayer for a Child. The poem appeared in the reading textbook Mrs. Burke, and all the fourth grade reading classes in our school district, and probably in hundreds of school districts, used. It wasn’t considered a classic of poetry. Likely, it was included in the reader to support that week’s spelling or vocabulary list.

But for me, a child who had happy memories walking on Castle Island in South Boston with her Grampie, and spent her summers on Cape Cod with her extended family, this poem captured a bit of her soul. I knew the sound of wheeling gulls. I had felt, really felt tides beat through  my sleep.

Decades and decades later, I still know this poem by heart. When my flight response gets to be too much to ignore, I’ll tell someone, “Sometimes a girl has to spend time on an island, ” and I’ll head to Aquidneck Island (where Newport is), or my parents’ home on the island in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee, or somewhere that will bring back that calm, that feeling of tides beating through my sleep.

Spending time on islands, and by the shore changed me, like the poem said. As a fourth grader, I couldn’t articulate that, but Rachel Field did in those simple lines.

Poetry does that.