2015 Festival of Books

Judith Claire Mitchell on “Words for a Lifetime”


Judith Claire MitchellWhen I was about eight years old I owned several collections of poetry for children. I still remember many of the poems I read then, and though I rarely can remember where I put my keys these days, I can still recite some of those old poems by heart. (“How do you like to go up in a swing/Up in the air so blue/Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing/Ever a child can do.”) But the poem that has had the biggest impact on me was not a precious ode to childhood, but the quatrain by Richard Armour that reads in its entirety, “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle/None will come/and then a lot’ll.” I understood and enjoyed the textual humor—even at eight, I’d had my run-ins with the stubborn contents of a bottle of Heinz—but I also knew that the wordplay was what made the poem work and made it memorable. I got that the poet was using language in a way that was irreverent and inventive and playful. The delight I took in the tricks the poet was making the English language perform has stayed with me all my life. More than anything I love thinking about and playing with language when I write . . . in fact, you might say I love it not a little but a whole lot’ll.

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