At my dad’s 85th birthday fete, he and the dozen other members of the poetry group gathered to recite. The titular head of the group handed out copies of “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” My dad handed back the paper, not disdainfully but with the same grace that you might extend to a relative offering you a coat on a warm day. My dad knew Sonnet 29 the way you know the names of your children.
My nostalgic and brutally optimistic misunderstanding of life a hundred years ago notwithstanding, it is inarguable that there is more content available lately than when my dad was learning poetry during the Second World War. I refuse to Google “Cuddling charismatic under-age mega-fauna” because of my concern that such a website may indeed exist. I’m having a hard time coming up with a website that is beyond parody. In previous generations there were fewer horrific choices. “Content” was books and magazines. Whereas today there are any number of websites containing images that cannot be unseen. If your children have unfettered access to the Internet (read: your child has a smart phone) my best guess is that they’re not looking up “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes; I all alone beweep my outcast state; and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries; and look upon myself and curse my fate.” They may be sad, they may feel vulnerable, they may be cursing, but their sense of themselves is inspired by the opinions of virtual friends who cannot be truly said to exist. Your kids aren’t likely on poetry.com–a website which indeed exists and to which I direct your attention.
I know, I know. You would prefer that your kids read poetry. Or read novels. Or read something. You feed your kids healthy, balanced meals at home with “sobre mesa”—a lovely Spanish phrase suggesting conversation and communication after eating—but the instant your children leave the house they are fed micro-waved McDreck by the neighbors with Calvin’s preferred “chocolate frosted sugar bombs.” And you model reading poetry and reading novels at home before sending your kids out into the broader culture of “buy me, get me, I want it now” and anti-intellectual yuk.
Not to mention the idyllic tire swing over the serene pond having been replaced by horror movies at the mall and social nightmares. There is no privacy. Your home is no longer your castle and your child’s room is anything but a place for quiet reflection, recharging, and contemplation. Loving parents are at war with an unrelenting barrage of unmitigated sewage. Speaking of scary films, social media is in your house. You can’t hang up the phone. Try taking the devices away. Good luck with that.
As always, the best way to stop is not to start.” No phones at the dinner table and no phones after nine at night should be instituted early and enforced forever. No devices in private spaces either. And if you’re not checking your child’s browsing history, you might as well just bring pornography into the house yourself.
As difficult as it is to combat a culture at war with healthy families, I’m still going to go on record as preferring poetry to “likes.” Language is preferable to inanity. Our kids are with us for such a brief moment. Shouldn’t we feed them healthy food and sparkling literature? They can’t absorb everything. There are only so many hours in a year.
“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope; featured like him, like him with friends possessed.” Coveting companions and approval predating “likes” by 400-something years? It’s the round the clock obsession that is of concern. “Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” Or the modern equivalent: “I want every one of my virtual friends to admire my Manolo Blahnik shoes.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Happily I think on thee and then my state
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate.
Okay, so Shakespeare was referencing romantic love. But your kids are young and will just have to make do with unconditional positive regard from their parents for now. You can help them get out of their own heads by helping them understand that their own opinion of themselves should not be driven by the judgement of ephemeral peers.
Research suggests that by the time your kids take their driving test they will have watched a bazillion hours of commercials, two bazillion hours of TV, and eleventy bazillion hours of YouTube, Tiktok, and FaceTimeMySpaceBumbleTinder. Shouldn’t you be able to find one hour a week in which to read, discuss, and memorize a few lines of poetry?
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
It is the sacred duty of loving parents even in these toxic times to ensure our kids know they are loved for who they are, not for how many likes their posts receive.
Because odds are you won’t be there for your child’s 85th birthday. It seems unlikely, even undesirable, that they stand up with their friends and act out some repulsive video they saw online. Wouldn’t you rather think about them arm in arm with their friends recounting Sonnet 29?