Archive for Poetry

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.

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Sidewalk Flowers; or, the Poet and the Picture Book

JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (2015)

This picture book is a wordless poem, written by a poet yet rendered by an artist. If that description sounds like one of the philosophical questions posed by JonArno Lawson’s poems (“can you remember / how you thought / before you / learned to talk?”), it should. Lawson conceived the book, and Sydney Smith drew it. Or perhaps I should say: Lawson had the vision, and Smith put it on the page.

Sidewalk Flowers’ protagonist, her red hoodie calling to mind Ezra Jack Keats’ Peter, is the book’s poet, open to the experience of the world, able to see her surroundings more fully than her preoccupied father. Her openness to her environs also recalls the protagonist of The Snowy Day (1962): both children walk through their respective neighborhoods, finding beauty in the everyday, moments of connection, and quiet insights that their busy elders tend to miss. She is the poet because of her capacity — if I may borrow Lawson’s description of his own poetic process — “to make unexpected discoveries” (Inside Out 29).

two-page spread from JonArno Lawson & Sidney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (2015)

She discovers the flowers that most grown-ups would dismiss as weeds. She gathers them from between the gaps in the paving stones, the slim circle round the base of the signpost, anywhere that a persistent plant has found those “chinks in the dark” (to quote Roethke) and burst into bloom. Her ability (in the book’s first half) to perceive the radiance of these neglected flowers yields (in the second half) to an even greater capacity to share that beauty with others. Instead of hoarding her bouquet, she gives flowers to people (a man sleeping on a park bench) and animals (a small dead bird) until, upon arriving home, she has a just enough flowers to give some to her mother and two siblings.

It’s a poetic picture book, in its attentiveness to what us non-poets overlook, and to the deeper meaning of small gestures. Sidewalk Flowers is also a perfect example of why a poem is a perfect analogue for a great picture book. As Maurice Sendak once observed, the picture book is “a complicated poetic form that requires absolute concentration and control” (Caldecott & Co. 186). It does. As works like Sidewalk Flowers demonstrate, the picture book can also convey — to quote another poem of Lawson’s — the idea that “The truth may be simple / But its impact is complicated” (Think Again 21).


 Works Cited

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. New York: Viking, 1962.

Lawson, JonArno. “Tickle Tackle Botticelli.” Black Stars in a Night Sky. Toronto: Peldar Press, 2006. 116.

Lawson, JonArno. “What I Saw.” Think Again. Illus. by Julie Morstad. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2010.

Lawson, JonArno, ed. Inside Out: Children’s Poets Discuss Their Work. London: Walker Books, 2008.

Lawson, JonArno and Sydney Smith. Sidewalk Flowers. Toronto and Berkeley: Groundwood Books, 2015.

Roethke, Theodore. “Root Cellar.” The Lost Son and Other Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1948.

Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures. 1988. Noonday Press, 1990.


More about Sidewalk Flowers and its creators

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Labor Poem

Philip Levine, What Work Is (1991)Yesterday, songs.  Today, a poem.  There are many poets to whom we might turn (Whitman and Sandburg rush to mind) for Labor Day, but I’ve opted for the title poem from What Work Is (1991) by America’s new Poet Laureate Philip Levine (b. 1928).  When you hear him read, he often shares a story about the poem — indeed, these succinct autobiographical narratives would make for a great collection of prose (were he so inclined).  So, here’s a recording of him reading “What Work Is,” including one of those introductions (he starts speaking at around 12 seconds in):

He’s a wonderful reader of his own work.  And here is the poem itself:

We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work is—if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.

Forget you. This is about waiting,

shifting from one foot to another.

Feeling the light rain falling like mist

into your hair, blurring your vision

until you think you see your own brother

ahead of you, maybe ten places.

You rub your glasses with your fingers,

and of course it’s someone else’s brother,

narrower across the shoulders than

yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin

that does not hide the stubbornness,

the sad refusal to give in to

rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,

to the knowledge that somewhere ahead

a man is waiting who will say, “No,

we’re not hiring today,” for any

reason he wants. You love your brother,

now suddenly you can hardly stand

the love flooding you for your brother,

who’s not beside you or behind or

ahead because he’s home trying to

sleep off a miserable night shift

at Cadillac so he can get up

before noon to study his German.

Works eight hours a night so he can sing

Wagner, the opera you hate most,

the worst music ever invented.

How long has it been since you told him

you loved him, held his wide shoulders,

opened your eyes wide and said those words,

and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never

done something so simple, so obvious,

not because you’re too young or too dumb,

not because you’re jealous or even mean

or incapable of crying in

the presence of another man, no,

just because you don’t know what work is.

Levine’s third line says “You know what work is,” and his final line says “you don’t know what work is.”  Between those two statements, the poem proves that we don’t know what work is… by giving us a deeper knowledge of what work is.  It educates us in order to expose the depths of our ignorance.

Offering a nuanced examination of “work,” labor of the type celebrated by Labor Day oscillates between background and foreground.  The speaker is at “Ford Highland Park,” his brother “Works eight hours a night,” and “somewhere ahead” a man can deny them work “for any / reason he wants.”  This sort of physical labor creates the setting for and underwrites the intensity of feeling behind the emotional labor the poem’s speaker works through — the necessary, vulnerable act of expressing love for another person.  “How long has it been since you told him / you loved him,” the speaker asks, before admitting to himself “You’ve never / done something so simple, so obvious” because he doesn’t know “what work is.”  The work of loving a brother, he suggests, is not just the harder work, but the far more important work, and a work that we do not, cannot, fully understand.

I like, too, how the tonal shifts create not distance from the brother, but intimacy — both by conveying the speaker’s feelings, and by offering specific details about the brother’s life.  In the first shift, the speaker changes the reference of the pronoun “you,” moving from his audience to himself: “Forget you. This is about waiting,” he says, returning to a different “you” a few lines later.  The deliberate affront of “Forget you” evokes an emotion from the reader, setting the stage for another tonal shift later on.  After describing his brother in sympathetic terms, our speaker reports that he “Works eight hours a night so he can sing / Wagner, the opera you hate most, / the worst music ever invented.” The frank rejection of his brother’s taste in music suggests both that perhaps the two have argued about it, and that the speaker dislikes Wagner with a comparable passion to his brother’s love for Wagner. This abrupt criticism’s context — expressing admiration and love for the brother — drains the remark of any animosity, suggesting instead that the speaker’s love is that much deeper because he dislikes his brother’s favorite composer, and admires the brother for singing it anyway.

Though the referent of the pronoun “you” shifts from audience to speaker, it also does not shift.  With each invocation of that pronoun “you,” the speaker interpellates the reader into his second-person subjecthood.  When he says, “suddenly you can hardly stand / the love flooding you for your brother,” he asks us to experience that intense love for our brother (or sister or mother or cousin or best friend).  When he says “you don’t know what work is,” he is not just accusing himself; he is accusing us, too.  And he makes a convincing case.  The work for which we are paid robs us of the time to be with, and sometimes to be loving towards, the people who are most important to us.  How much of our daily life do we spend away from the people we love the most?  When will we next see that sibling, parent, old friend, niece, uncle again?  (Indeed, will we see them again?)

It’s a powerful poem.  And Levine is one of our great poets.  I recommend What Work Is, The Simple Truth (1994), and — if you’d like a larger collection of earlier work — New Selected Poems (1991).  I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve not read his most recent collection, News of the World (2009).  But I’ve just ordered myself a copy.

Sources: “What Work Is” © 1992 by Philip Levine; appears in What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).  Copied here from the Poetry Foundation, which also has a nice biographical piece on Levine.  I’m honestly not sure where I got this recording (the mp3 has been in my iTunes for a little while); a different recording is on the Poetry Foundation‘s page. 

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