Meter Matters: Better No Seuss Than Faux Seuss

Dr. Seuss, What Pet Should I Get? (2015)The “new” Seuss book (due out tomorrow) is attracting a lot of notice — some of it, unfortunately, in verse.  It is possible to write great ersatz Seuss.  But it’s not easy. For faux Seuss, you must know Seuss.  It helps, too, if you’re a poet.

Michiko Kakutani’s metrical mess offers an excellent caution to aspiring Seussifiers. Though doubtless intended as a fond tribute, it betrays little awareness of Seussian poetics or, for that matter, of poetry in general.  Seuss typically wrote in anapestic tetrameter, sometimes introducing a pair of anapestic feet with an iamb.  For those unfamiliar with these terms, an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable; tetrameter means that this pattern repeats four times in one line. If you need to hear an example in your head and cannot recall a Seuss lyric, then think of a limerick. Limericks typically use anapestic trimeter (three anapests per line) for the first, second, and fifth lines.  Edward Lear is the limerick’s most famous purveyor, but the form strongly influenced Seuss’s work, too. Those anapests give Seuss’s verse its particular swing.

Kakutani‘s verse, on the other hand, has no regular metrical pattern.  It seems to switch between iambs and anapests at random.  And yet, I keep seeing her poem (I use the term “poem” loosely) described as “Seussian.”  It isn’t.

Writing fake Seuss is a challenge, but not impossible. The late David Rakoff’s “Samsa and Seuss” does it brilliantly. It imagines an epistolary exchange between Gregor Samsa (of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) and Dr. Seuss.  It aired on This American Life exactly three years ago, read by Jonathan Goldstein (as Samsa) and Rakoff (as Seuss). It runs 13 minutes. I’ve embedded the audio below. Or click here for a link to the whole show.

Finally,…

As you enjoy the new Seuss (or do not),

Remember that rhythm that can’t be forgot.

Anapestic’s the metric. It swings! And it sings!

It dances and shimmies. It gives words their wings.

If in versification you are not a leader,

You’ll be better off if you don’t mess with meter.

Related reading:

Hat tip to Jonathan Gorbach for “Samsa and Seuss.”  An additional tip of the red-and-white-striped topper to Joseph Thomas for catching an error in the initial version of this post, and to Richard Flynn for correcting that correction.

8 Comments »

  1. Richard Flynn Said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 8:50 am

    Seuss wrote in anapestic tetrameter:

    and to THINK / that I SAW / it on MUL / ber y STREET

    That’s 4 feet.

  2. Richard Flynn Said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 8:57 am

    Except when he wrote trochaic tetrameter:
    ONE fish TWO fish RED fish BLUE fish

  3. Philip Nel Said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    Hi, Richard. I’d written tetrameter, but Joseph corrected me to trimeter (based on my examples, which were in trimeter). I write this in an airport a few days ago. Should have checked it more thoroughly before posting.

  4. Joseph Thomas Said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 10:23 am

    No. I wasn’t correcting your claim about Seuss, Phil: I was just telling you that tetrameter is a four foot line, and that trimeter is a three footer (you wrote, ” tetrameter means that this pattern repeats three times in one line.” That would be trimeter.) That’s all.

  5. Philip Nel Said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 10:30 am

    Understood, Joseph. Thanks.

  6. Richard Flynn Said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 11:04 am

    If you want to write verse like the good Dr. Seuss,
    Make sure that your meter is tight like a noose.
    If it’s not anapestic, your verse is a mess-tic,
    And your parody won’t have the proper effest-tic.

  7. Susan Ellman Said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

    I tried reading the NYT review. I know a number of people who try writing that kind of “poetry” and I don’t know what to say to them to make them stop it. The only defense I can imagine is that the writer learned English from the printed page only and she has never actually heard Seuss (or any other verse) aloud. I hope she sees this and learns something from it.

  8. Joseph Thomas Said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

    No problem, Phil. I should’ve been more clear: the trimeter/tetrameter confusion happens a lot.

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