I am surprised at how many children in the United States learn about poetry late into their school years. Maybe they are not ready for poetry because poetry can be very abstract and difficult to understand at times. A lot of children struggle learning grammar and vocabulary as part of their reading and comprehension skills which make it difficult to memorize and recite poems.
There were two mandatory languages we studied in school in Romania. I was lucky to be in a school where students studied English. We learned grammar, vocabulary, spelling, writing, reading aloud, and translation of stories and poems. We were mostly focusing on translations and adaptations in Romanian.
The teachers did not insist on teaching us conversational skills. The chances for a child to travel abroad at that time were very small. So, they figured we didn’t need them. An English teacher was telling me years later that when she was in college her classmates learned everything under the sky about the English language but refused to speak with one another.
There were some children that were making some progress because they were obsessed with what Metallica or Black Sabbath were trying to say in their songs. I admit that I learned some more English from the Beatles songs. Even though we were bombarded with a load of information for several years we still could not say two words on our own at the end of high school.
We had some pretty crazy English teachers that they didn’t care if we were understanding what we were reading or not. In the middle school, we learned how to sing “Auld Lang Syne”. We sounded terrible. All that mattered to us was that we were singing in a different language than Romanian. We didn’t understand anything we were saying but we memorized the song pretty well.
In high school, we studied “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway. We had a teacher that required us to learn the sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” by William Shakespeare and asked each one of us to stand up and recite it by heart in front of the class.
The French class was tough, too. It was not my favorite. We had studied French for longer than English. We were also required to know songs and poems.
Romanian Literature was brutal. We had to memorize passages and lengthy poems starting with middle school. They counted heavily at exams. We had to write them in our essays exactly how the authors were saying them. There is a very famous poem, “Luceafarul” by Eminescu that could be translated “The Evening Star”. It is very long and philosophical. Every Romanian remembers at least how it starts. After a while, it is hard to remember. The teacher made us memorized it and was grading us on how many verses we learned. It was impossible to memorize the entire poem.
The verses I like the most and still remember are from the poem called “Moartea lui Fulger” or “Levin’s Death” by George Cosbuc. They represent the continuation of life. Life goes on despite everything that takes place around us. I still remember them because I like nature and the author made some analogies with trees. He is saying that a branch that was taken from its tree has little meaning to the forest because there are many other branches left.
The broken branch symbolizes people that leave our world and after a while they are forgotten and not missed anymore. This is a very pessimistic thought just like other poetry that was written at that time. Maybe people thought that life had very little value back then. I am only speculating. Here there are the original verses and my translation and interpretation of these verses.
De rupi din codru o rămurea,
Ce-i pasă codrului de ea!
Ce-i pasă unei lumi întregi
De moartea mea!
[English – my interpretation]
If you break off a branch [from a tree]
The forest won’t care [just like]
The world that won’t care
If I die. [about my death]
We learned a lot of poems in school. We discussed and interpreted them to the littlest detail. I may not remember many of them right now but I know that they bring a smile on my face when I read them again. I guess poetry is not that bad after all!
For more Romanian poetry translated in English see Two Poems by Mihai Eminescu [Romanian poet, English audio, Romanian native speaker]