In school I often complained to my teachers about the poems we were made to read. All too often they were dark and depressing. Some were okay, though, but others were just ‘nope.’ Gentling a Wildcat by Douglas Livingstone was one such poem. Nope.

Of course there were other poems as well, such as the Afrikaans poem Klaas Geswind en syn Perd by F.W. Reitz. It’s the tongue in the cheek story of a guy that got drunk one night and as he was riding his horse home through the cemetery, he thought the devil was chasing him, grabbing at his horse’s tail. In a mad dash he got out of there and the next morning he tried to write it off as the delusions of a drunk, except that all the hair of the horse’s tail had been pulled out. It’s a fun little poem which all of my teachers tried to moralise, but failed. Also, in re-reading it for this post, I noticed there was one verse that is wholly inappropriate for any high school curriculum:

Plesier is nes ‘n jong komkommer,
As jy hom pluk, verlep hy sommer;
Of nes ‘n skilpad in syn dop in,
Soos jy hom vat, dan trek hy kop in.

It is one of the raunchiest verses our supposedly pious forefathers ever wrote! It goes something like this:

Pleasure is like a young cucumber,

Once you’ve plucked it, it quickly softens;

Or like a tortoise in his shell,

Just as you touch it, it pulls in his head.

Didn’t anyone ever read this before giving it to a bunch of 15-year olds to read?

There were also poems that moved me from the first moment I read it. Poems that seemed to speak to something deep inside m; often for reasons I can’t even comprehend. One such is Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was the husband of Mary Shelley, famous author of Frankenstein.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It is one of the loneliest poems ever written and I love it. It’s everything I ever complained about in school, but it is also everything I could ask of in a poem. It is perfect.
I guess many of you have a favourite poems: sometimes for a good reason and sometimes merely because it touched you. If I could wish one thing for any student of languages, it is that every one of you find that one poem that moves you.

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