Friday, February 15, 2008

April Rain Song — Poetic I.N.K. on a Poetry Friday

One of the many excellent anthologies that I own is The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, edited by Donald Hall. The book was put out in 1999 by Oxford University Press, and recently they added shiny gold-foil stickers to the cover that say "Edited by the 2006-2007 POET LAUREATE".

Hall's point in assembling this particular collection was to pull poems written for children over the past few centuries "back into light." Hall believes that "[p]oetry for our children began with Native American cradle songs, moved on to a rhymed alphabet, bloomed in the 19th century with 'A Visit from St. Nicholas,' expanded in the 20th, and continues with vigor into the 21st."

The book opens with three Native American cradle songs and quickly progresses through time to the 20th century, where selections include poems from Frost, Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Cummings, Nash, Roethke and more, including three poems from Langston Hughes: "Mother to Son", "Hope", and "April Rain Song", which caught my eye for more reasons than its mention of the months.

"April Rain Song" begins in a way that echoes the priestly blessing found in the book of Numbers 6:24-26: "The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."

April Rain Song
by Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night --

And I love the rain.

Oh how I adore that very last line, the one that breaks the form, the rule of threes that he's established. The one that takes the poem from general to specific, from a benediction to a description to a personal experience. And I love this poem, as do elementary school children.

When I did elementary school visits last year, this poem was a huge hit with kids in all grades from first on up. Usually, I asked the kids if they thought one part of the poem was more important than the rest, and they all agreed that it was the last line, and a lot of them offered reasons they thought so. What follows is my thoughts on why that is:

1. Like the cheese, that last line stands alone. Setting something apart like that gives it emphasis and weight.

2. It is one of the shortest lines in the poem (tied with the very first line at 5 words). Something that is so much shorter than what is around it stands out, and gains extra importance.

3. It is the only line spoken in first person. The first three are in second person, directing the listener. "Let the rain . . ." The second three are in third person, describing what the rain does. That last line is all about the speaker.

4. It is the only line that isn't about the rain at all: it's about how the speaker feels about the rain. It gets extra weight (again) for being singular in its perspective and emotion.

That last reason was the one that the kids grabbed onto immediately, even if they sometimes phrased it a little differently. They heard that line, "And I love the rain," and they knew that all the rest of the poem was there as a justification for that last line; that the last line was the key to the whole poem. The rest of the poem explains why the speaker loves the rain with its gentle imagery of kisses and lullabyes and the playing of sleep-songs. It talks of what the rain does. But that final, singular, first-person line that tells how the speaker feels about the rain is the reason for the poem.


Liz Garton Scanlon said...

Ooooh, I think I really want this book. I think everything Hall touches is golden, I really do.

tanita✿davis said...

And just like the blessing, I can imagine this poem sung! Lovely!

jama said...

Wonderful post, Kelly. I love Langston Hughes. Need to check out this book!

Sara said...

I've always loved this one. It breaks the rules so well.

Alison Ashley Formento said...

One of my favorite poems! So nice to see it here.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

When I was teaching first grade we always had Poetry Wednesdays. We loved this poem. I'd put it on chart paper and the kids would copy it into their notebooks and read it over until they knew it by heart. It helped them with reading. A few eight graders have come back to me and told me they still know the poems we learned. April Rain Song is one everyone should know!