A Children’s Book . . . Reimagined

I was probably three or four years old when my mother gave me this little book by Margaret Wise Brown, published in 1952, the year after I was born. As a physical object the book is a delight–small, slim, sturdy, the cover boards measure 5 ½″ x 5″ with the width slightly greater than the height, giving the book its appropriately horizontal feel. The illustrations, by Barbara Cooney, in black, white & red, fill the double fold of the open book, with the text always on the right. The illustrations combine a certain naturalism with a tightly controlled whimsy.1

 

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The structure of the book is perhaps the most common in children’s poetry over the last 100 years or so: The poet begins with a formal structure, often, as here, a question & answer pattern, simple rhymes with frequent repetition. In Where Have You Been? the title sets the motif: Someone is asking first one animal & then another the title’s question–Where have you been? The rhetorical payoff or punchline of each stanza is the witty reply of the animal being interrogated.

 

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Little Old Cat
Little Old Cat
Where have you been?
To see this and that
Said the Little Old Cat
That’s where I’ve been.

The typographical convention here is clearly maximum capitalization & minimum punctuation. The lines are broken at grammatical junctures emphasized by rhyme, sometimes identical rhyme, though as it turns out this leaves room for a fair amount of variation from section to section. Thus:

Little Old Fish
Little Old Fish
Where do you swim?
Wherever I wish
Said the Little Old Fish
That’s where I swim.

And one more example, with a slight variation, from Where Have You Been? In this stanza, the question shifts from the empirical to the metaphysical:

Little Old Mouse
Little Old Mouse
Why run down the clock?
To see if the tick
Comes after the tock
I run down the clock.

There is one other stanza in the book that makes use of this kind of grammatical shift. It was that opening to the metaphysical–from where to why–that gave me the idea of writing a few of my own stanzas, using Brown’s poetic structure & rhetoric. Mine are darker.

Little Old Man
Why do you run?
I’m just about done
You can put down the phone
Said the Little Old Man
That’s why I run.

Little Old Rat
Little Old Rat
Where have you been?
I’ve been under my hat
Said the Little Old Rat
That’s where I’ve been.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where were you
When the shit hit the fan?
I was right here with you
When the shit hit the fan.

Little Old Flea
Little Old Flea
What do you see?
I have been out to sea
Said the Little Old Flea
To bring you This Disease.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where have you been?
Why do you flee?
I have been out with the flea
Sailing over the sea.

I don’t make any great claims for this little piece. I’ve always admired the rhetorical stance that adopts children’s language & vocabulary, recasting it for adult purposes.2 Or maybe I felt the need to drop the attitude of The Good Cancer Patient for a little while & simply indulge in some dark play. In fact, I think that is mostly what I have been doing.

I understand the connection between mind & body in cancer treatment, including the need to focus the mind on what is good & useful; no doctor, though, would deny the existence of bleak moods & it seems to me that my poetic exercise incorporates this kind of bleakness into a larger creative act. Poetry, even as the highest art, can have therapeutic value even when that is not the motivation of poet or poem. Used consciously as therapy–though that only dawned on me gradually–making this sort of poem must be an act of healing. This has been a pretty rotten day, actually. I had to spend the time & energy to go to the hospital for another MRI scan, a procedure that, while necessary, does not foster peace of mind. But because I came home & worked on a collage for a while, then rested & ate, then took up this little essay, I feel fairly peaceful, though not without a trickle of anxiety. Well, poetry isn’t magical, is it?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. To my way of thinking, whimsy is always best when tightly controlled.
  2. cf. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths.”

Ed Mycue

Dear Readers, if you have not clicked through already to read Ed’s comment to my Chicken Shawarma post, click here. You owe it to yourself to do so. In reading Ed’s comment you will be introduced to a fine poet, a great soul & a man old not only in years but in wisdom. I only know Ed by way of correspondence–we met when I was Poetry Editor of the Wallace Stevens Journal & Ed submitted envelopes stuffed & over-stuffed with his poetry & cover letters as poetic as the poems themselves. Here are a couple more Mycue resources–a video & selection of Ed’s poems. I continue to be astonished by the poet’s hard-edged realism expressed in the humane language of one perpetually love-struck by the world.

Opioids

Until a couple of months ago I had never taken a sedative stronger than a couple of Valium & that a very long time ago. Without intending to minimize the severity of the current epidemic of opioid abuse, I do not understand the attraction. About an hour after taking two 5 mg tablets of Percocet, I experience a fifteen minute period of mild euphoria followed by drowsiness, but if I don’t catch that wave I move through the sleepiness to a state of comfortable alertness. After that, all bets are off. Sometimes the alertness will continue for an hour or so, sometimes I will simply fall into a deep sleep for three hours or so. But over the course of days, the cumulative effect is dull drowsiness that makes it difficult to write except in short bursts. The drug also slows down the digestive tract through which it passes, lending another cluster of unpleasant symptoms. The radiation treatments I begin tomorrow are supposed to relieve much of the pain in my back, which in turn will allow me to reduce the amount of Percocet I’m taking. I hope so. I have poems to finish. 

Necessary Limits

Over the last few days I’ve been watching documentaries on contemporary visual art, many from the PBS series Art:21. Over & over again, across multiple genres, approaches, political commitments & media, the artists talk in a number of different ways about working within limits. The limits artists employ are self-imposed, even when they are drawn from tradition.1

Why would so many different artists voluntarily constrain themselves with what can appear to be arbitrary limitations when, presumably, they could work without limits? Could an artist just pick up the brush-camera-pen-keyboard-saxaphone & start wailing away in genius mode? Seems doubtful, and yet over the course of my writing & teaching life I have run up against the idea that “creative” equals “no rules.” This strikes me as some sort of vulgar utopianism.

My former teacher Donald Justice, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1980, remarked at about that time that he regretted not living in an era when there was a period style to work within & against. That’s one kind of limit.

The Elizabethan theater needed a form of language that could sustain a declamatory mode of acting. The newly emerging poetic line, the iambic pentameter, was suited to this kind of drama, but of course a set verse form is a limitation. But then Shakespeare came along & used this limitation–among many other things–to produce works of genius within those limits. Shakespeare would not have been able to write Lear or The Tempest, to select the two plays I always return to.

Constraints, or limits, are highly productive. Even a hang-loose West Coast conceptual artist like John Baldessari says, in his Art 21 segment:

Not so much structure that it’s inhibiting–I mean there is not wiggle room–but not so loose that it can be anything. I guess it’s like a corral–a corral around your idea that you can move but not too much and it’s that limited movement that promotes creativity. [John Baldessari]

But even within the most rebellious forms of Modernism & post-modernism, artists impose systems–corrals, as Baldessari calls them–such as William Carlos Williams’ half-imaginary phrase-based triadic measure. Even though this prosody has turned out to be largely non-transferable (I know–I have tried it), as a limit it allowed WCW to write “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “To Daphne and Virginia” & other poems from his late period.

I’m scheduled to teach Introduction to Creative Writing in the fall. It’s a class with which I have had a love / hate relationship over the years, largely because of the issues sketched above. I’m going to design a version of the class with this notion of productive constraints at its heart.

Show 1 footnote

  1. There are of course limitations that artists do not control, though they should be aware of them: economic conditions, certain forces of personal history, the politics of the state in which the artist lives / works, etc.

Best Three Dylan Albums?

I’ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcus’s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcus’s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge of popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcus’s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figure (or personality), but as a poet. People don’t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poet—whether he meets the qualifications—but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought this—after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1

I seem to have buried my thesis in a footnote. I’m getting ready to teach Dylan’s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I don’t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylan’s “most important” work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, I’d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. It’s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylan’s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylan’s career, but perhaps I’ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.

 

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I’d go so far as to suggest that Dylan’s best songs have been written at times when Dylan has conceived of himself, however awkwardly, as a poet—or, perhaps, self-consciously, as an artist.
  2. I don’t presume to teach “popular culture,” but only its “literature.”