In Memoriam Peter Caws: poetry

Another life-long joy my father introduced me to is a love of poetry. He had a number of poems memorized for his own pleasure, and he’d recite them for us. It may have started as a way to soothe us before we could understand the language, and I think early on I was primarily impressed by the very feat of memory rather than the poems themselves. Eventually I enjoyed hearing them for their own sake, and grew to love some of his favorites as I went on to discover others. I’ve attempted to memorize some as well, but it doesn’t stick without regular repetition.

The poems I remember best from his repertoire were “Sea Fever” by John Masefield; “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats; and “On This Island” by W. H. Auden. I’m sure there were others. When he was ill, one way I could connect with him was to read poetry to him, both his favorites and my own. Eventually I switched to amusing poems when the beautiful ones made him too sad; a lot of Odgen Nash delighted him, and no matter how miserable he was, “Spring Comes to Murray Hill” would inevitably make him laugh.

He wrote poems as well – some serious, but mostly delightful doggerel. My most cherished present, from age 8 to age 52, was the annual birthday poem he would write for me. The first one was lost, alas, but I remember that it featured powers of 2 (I was 8 years old that year, on the 8th of the month, and I was born in ’64). Math, wordplay, and parodies are recurring themes, and some feature footnotes. They’re funny and touching, and I cherish them still and always. I wish I had kept better track of them when I was younger – I have twenty-six of them transcribed and copied from all the sources over the years, and I continue to hope others may turn up.