I’ve had a few moments with my kids lately that feel like Po having the Noodle Dream in the Kung Fu Panda movie. You know those moments when your kiddos bear out all their genetic programming and/or careful nurturing, and there is no denying they belong to you.
My daughter was studying for a test recently, and she was assigned a poem by Wisława Szymborska. This is not a poet people might expect me to have in my library, being a medievalist of the Germanic/Latinate persuasion. I know no Polish. But I have a dear friend who taught English in Poland for a year, the year that Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for literature, in fact. She decided I this was the perfect time to expand my VFOGI (Vast Fund of General Information), and she brought me a collection of poetry home from Poland.
So there I was, acting all cool, like “Of course I have Szymborska on my shelf. I’m well read.” And I pulled it, and she read more than the one poem her silly high school text book tempted her with, and she and I had a genuine moment.
She found the poem from her text book first. We compared translations and talked about how hard it is to translate poetry. We puzzled for a minute over which translation might be “closer” (as only people who know zero Polish can do), and then she flipped through that collection like I used to flip through card catalogs—looking for treasure.
She read aloud every poem that caught her attention, and I tried to hide the fact that I was weeping. I think I did.
She reads beautifully. She reads with feeling and clarity and good judgment and musicality. And she LOVES poetry.
What is it about poetry that appeals to teenagers? I remember a friendly argument with my dad when I was fifteen, that took place on our backyard porch swing one summer afternoon around dusk. He had just made the egregious error of saying it was “a pleasant evening.” I pouted a bit and protested that “pleasant” wasn’t enough. Things had to be electric and exciting, or you weren’t really living. And he smiled his Mr. Ping smile, where the dad notices his kiddo is just like him, and said “Someday you’ll come to realize ‘pleasant’ is pretty damn good.”
I think that’s what it is. Teenagers need electricity, and poetry is language like lightning.
(For those of you who missed Kung Fu Panda, Mr Ping is a goose who adopts a baby panda and raises him without telling him he’s adopted. When Po has The Noodle Dream, Mr Ping takes it as a sign that he is ready to commit to the family business and claim his birthright. It’s hilarious, but also feels very real.)