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Dancing with Diction

Today is the birthday of Dr. Seuss, without whom I would care nothing for poetry. One of the great bonding behaviors I shared with my baby sister was running around the house reciting snatches (sneeches?) of kid-book poetry at the tops of our lungs. “This one has a little star! This one has a little car! Say, what a lot of fish there are!” The king of that castle is and will always be Theodor Geisel 1904-1991. Circa 1960 our parents had signed us up for what amounted to the Dr. Seuss book club, and every month we got one of his books or another book that was clearly written in his style. There were some outliers not written in verse, like Look Out for Pirates! but who remembers those anymore? (Go, Dog, Go! may be one exception.)

On the other hand, I only have to recall the title of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and my poetry-reciter is off at a trot. Gretchen’s even better at it than I. Don’t get us started if you’re one of those lit’ry types who feels that any poetry with rhyme and meter is worthy only of folding into the center of a Hallmark card.

Modern universities crank such out by the pallet load. Years ‘n years ago, at one damned cocktail party conversation or another (I think associated with the Book Expo America trade show) I made an energetic case that good poetry can have both rhyme and meter. A well-credentialed tribalist immediately jumped on me, steam jetting from every orifice. “So,” he jetted, “all poetry should be doggerel?”

Whoo-boy! Note the well-worn tribal tactic: I suggested that something the tribalist hated should be allowed. The tribalist immediately misrepresented me as saying that everything except what he hated should be forbidden. I called him on it. I basically humiliated him in front of several of his peers. How did I humiliate him? I dared him to begin reciting blank verse from some author who would be taught in college literature courses. He couldn’t do it. I turned the knife by immediately beginning to recite “The Hollow Men.” I stopped after eight or ten lines. I then asked him which poet had written the following:

mighty guest of merely me
–traveler from eternity;
in a single wish, receive
all I am and dream and have.

He shook his head. “You did.” Heh. Don’t I wish. It was e. e. cummings. I offered to recite the rest of the poem. The dork said “No thanks,” and slunk away.

Now, I may be a better memorizer than he was. But I had a secret advantage: Structured poetry is easier to remember. And a secret vulnerability: I had recited all of Eliot that I could recall, and I remember Eliot today largely because I used to make fun of him so much. (I wasn’t singling Eliot out–Dr. Seuss himself did not escape.) Give me Macavity any day, even if the sophisticates dismiss it as children’s poetry. (It’s a cat poem. Dare ‘ya to call it doggerel!) I can recite a great deal of that. It contains irony, subtlety, and much merriment.You can dance to it. I give it a 10.

Note that I don’t “hate” blank verse and freeform poetry, nor do I dismiss it simply because it lacks rhyme and meter. I studied it. I studied Walt Whitman, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, and all those guys of that era and that school of poetry, which has basically won the day. I still recall why my profs thought they were significant. The problem is that the poems themselves I have utterly forgotten. Lowell has a great line somewhere about ’59 Chevies rolling past like fish in a tank, in finned servility. But that’s all of him that I can remember, having read an entire book full of his stuff and discussed it at length in a 300-level class. I’m sure it was carefully crafted. I’ll grant that it was important. But in no way on this or any other world could it ever be fun.

For that you have to go back to poets like Vachel Lindsay, who opened “The Santa Fe Trail” in an eminently memorable way:

This is the order of the music of the morning-:
First from the far east comes but a crooning.
The crooning turns to a sunrise singing:
Hark to the calm-horn, balm-horn, psalm-horn.
Hark to the faint-horn, quaint-horn, saint-horn…

Damn, not only can I see that, I can feel it! It makes me want to run around the house with my baby sister (now 55) yelling “Ho for Kansas land that restores us! When houses choke us and great books bore us!” Eventually we collapse on the couch, breathless from laughing so hard and glowing from feeling so good. Kid stuff? Sure! At least for kids who haven’t yet sold their kidness for a pot of message.

Poetry is about laughter, especially laughter that comes of wishing we could be in Kansas so that we could get away from all those Great Books that are so ponderously self-important they they undergo lexical collapse and vanish into their own navels while everybody stands around scratching their heads trying to understand what the hell they were attempting to convey.

And about dancing, yes. Poetry is dancing with diction, doing the polka with participles, spinning an allemand with adverbs. It’s cutting loose from grim reality for awhile and letting language just take us. “He thought he saw an elephant / That practiced on a fife: / He looked again and found it was / A letter from his wife.” What does it mean? You’d be surprised. I’ll tell you in a minute, but…the music isn’t over yet.

If I’d had to jump straight into Lowell and Roethke I would have tossed it all overboard. But Dr. Seuss had gotten to me first. He taught me that you could dance to words, and from that dance it was a short step to Chaucer and Pope and Longfellow and Tennyson and Lindsay and Robert Frost and e. e. cummings. Having danced to the edges of rhyme and meter (cummings is a great transition) I could go the rest of the way, and watch the fins go by with Robert Lowell.

Did poetry classes leave a sour taste in your mouth? Grab a Dr. Seuss book, and find your sister if you have one. Run around the house spitting iambs and trochees until you collapse laughing on the couch. That’s how you reboot your poetry sense. Then, if you want, you can take it all the rest of the way to Walt Whitman and beyond.

But I personally wouldn’t blame you if you stopped right there.


  1. Erbo says:

    Another poet that would appeal to young and old would be Shel Silverstein. He wrote some books of poetry for kids, like Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, but he also did some more “adult” stuff, too.

    Get a hold of the recording he did of his poem “The Smoke-Off,” which he originally wrote for Playboy; he half-sings the poem and accompanies himself on acoustic guitar. That poem certainly isn’t for kids; it’s about a marijuana-smoking contest. He gave a similar treatment to his kids’ poem “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out”; that recording appeared on one of the Dr. Demento collections.

    Yes, Silverstein was also a songwriter; he wrote the song “A Boy Named Sue,” which was, of course, made famous by Johnny Cash.

    1. Oh, yes. The Silverstein that sticks out most in my mind is “Plastic,” starring the termite who practically starved because the whole house was, well, you can guess. The next stanza I’ll leave for others to discover.

  2. Jim Mischel says:

    At the risk of applying an inappropriate or maybe punful metaphor: Pure poetry, Jeff.

    “…wishing we could be in Kansas so that we could get away from all those Great Books…” That whole paragraph is excellent. I’d like to engrave it on a bat and go hunting for pretentious literary snobs to beat with it.

    And I’ll second (third?) the Silverstein recommendation. Pure genius, that guy: from his children’s poetry all the way to some of the more colorful Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show songs.

  3. Lee Hart says:

    A great post, Jeff! I agree wholeheartedly. The rhyme and meter is what makes it memorable. If you played “Telephone” and passed around a snippet of a poem. I’ll bet it would make it around the circle more or less intact.

    I learned to love Dr. Seuss around the second grade. I loved the silly stories and rhymes, but I think it was also because my teacher hated it. Her idea of proper reading material was “Dick and Jane”. Shel Silverstein is also great, but I didn’t discover him until I was an adult.

    I’ve turned my own hand to parodying Seuss. Here’s my version called “How the Grinch Stole Green-ness.”

  4. Jim Tubman says:

    The only Dr. Seuss book I had as a child was “If I Ran the Circus.” It was the first book that I bought for my own son (now 26) when he was a baby. I can still recite most of it by heart.

    We bought loads of Seuss books for our 4 little ones, and read them over and over, and enjoyed them as much as the kids did. I just polled them (hooray for text messaging), and “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” was the runaway favourite — every one of them picked it. (As well as the boyfriend of Daughter #2.)

    “Look what we found in the park in the dark.
    We will take him home. We will call him Clark.
    He will live at our house. He will grow and grow.
    Will our mother like this? We don’t know.”

    (The fact that they had a cousin Clark added to the amusement.)

    I sincerely believe that people will be reading and enjoying Dr. Seuss 300 years from now.

  5. Rich Rostrom says:

    “At length I realize,” he said
    “The bitterness of life.”

    (Did you really think no one would catch that?)

    Geisel was also a gifted cartoonist, of course. There is an exhibit currently at the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago about “Training Comics in World War II and Korea”.

    One of the cartoons on display is by Geisel: why and how to avoid the attentions of “Blood-drinking Annie” – the anopheles mosquito.

    He’s still current – vide the recent movie of his The Lorax.

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