Welcome back to the Literary Helpdesk, where we are out of sorts.
I’ve had a cold and it didn’t get me out of doing anything. This was especially aggravating because, to quote Mary from Persuasion: “My sore throats are always worse than anyone’s.” I was so out of sorts, in fact, that I had to put down Persuasion, which is, of course, the best Jane Austen novel, because I was finding Mary much too sympathetic a figure.
Sadly, this led to me reading the news instead, and that put me in such a state of vexation and outrage that I could barely navigate the one-way system in place at school pick-up. I stood in the wrong queue (line) [We’re giving you that one. – ed.], nearly took the wrong child, walked down the wrong side of the rope divider, got told off by the usually-jovial head teacher, tried to correct course, and ended up back at the year four door. My children are in years three and five. My step dad would say, “You’re junk, kid; go home and sleep it off!”, but as I brought two children to school that morning there was a strong expectation that I take two children away with me again. To be clear, the same ones.
As observed amongst parents trapped in the one-way school drop-off and pick-up labyrinths that everything is more complicated at the moment—even without a rotten head cold—I won’t qualify this by saying things are harder for parents, or for mothers in particular, or for schools, or for offices. There is just more complexity of rules and risk assessment, and extra steps to simple tasks like dropping the children at school, or popping to the corner shop for milk. We are required to work to different timings and view ordinary life in very different ways.
The kids are finding this too: new restrictions and timetables, new seating arrangements, no more whole school assemblies or break times, no hot options at lunch, and the weird prohibition on refilling their drinking water. It’s a lot to take in, and since term began both daughters have been coming out of class chattering at top speed with great animation about, well, all of it. It is a lot to take in, and at the height of my mucous misery I was not up to it.
I stopped dead just as we rounded the first corner. “Isabel. Met. An ENORMOUS bear.” I intoned. The girls squealed and began to dance forwards once more, their squabbles immediately forgotten, and they replied in unison “Isabel, Isabel DIDN’T CARE!”
I continued: “The bear was HUNGRY, the bear was RAVENOUS; the bear’s big mouth was CRUEL…and CAVERNOUS.”
“Do the voice, Mommy! Do the voice! The bear saaaaaid….”
Being growly is easy with a cold:
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you; How do, Isabel, now I’ll eat you!
They always give another squeal, gripped by a delicious, imagined fear, then with great decorum and prim timing, answer, Greek-chorus like:
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry.
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
This is the first stanza of Adventures of Isabel, by Ogden Nash. I could not tell you when I learnt it, for it seems to have always been a feature of my memory. There is all sorts of verse tangled up in there, and the more lucid and intact poems have been passed on to my children. It’s not just Isabel that can elicit this response. Say the words “There once was a puffin,” in their hearing and any one of them will respond in Pavlovian manner “just the shape of a muffin.” Learning The Puffin Poem kept them entertained for a ninety minute car trip several years back.
I’ve never had much sympathy for the aversion to poetry that so many people express. Most people who hate poetry haven’t read much of it. The stereotypes make one’s eyes roll:
Trite sentiment with bland half-rhyme
That goes on for line after line after line.
Such earnest self-expression in common meter couplets
Is more than I can read and not do throwing up yet.
pretentious Free verse with
no metre and odd–
line breaks. that breaks the sense that already was
Broken with space and more space. And mixes
metaphors into an
obscure puree like
in your Dreams syntax taken
hostage and semantics dancing naked.
Full comma semi stopped up colon dash.
Too much everythingness
I am far too out of sorts to answer this charge right now. There is so much bad poetry that seems to prove it (see above) — but, another week…
Good poetry, however, does much more than emote or condescend. Its rhythms and phonics have just the right texture to stick to memory, where they are most easily absorbed.
And poetry is playful. Even serious poets play with words, making the mundane novel again with ordinary terms linked and spun in new ways. Poetry doesn’t argue you into looking again at a familiar theme, but rather twists language into new shapes, works the subject into a new image altogether so that you can’t help but look again, think again. Consider this brief passage from Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven and how it speaks of human ambition and divine love. There is a playfulness and whimsey in the unexpected linkages and imagery, despite the seriousness and anguish of the passage:
Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
Conversely, light and humorous poetry that seems to trade only on wordplay can positively burgeon with “big” ideas and themes. For example, despite its brevity and impishness, Ogden Nash’s poem My Dream says a lot about eroticism:
This is my dream,
It is my own dream,
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt.
Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.
Positively filthy, isn’t it? (In the best way, of course.)
2020 is a great year to read poetry. If nothing else, it limbers one up to deal with the ordinary everyday stuff of life transforming into the strange, and indeed the strange becoming ordinary.
Childish as The Adventures of Isabel is, reveling in the calm and grit of its heroine in facing down outlandish threats (were they real or were they imagined? Does it matter?) meant my daughters and I had much more of a spring in our step as we walked through our front door reciting the final verse:
Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor’s talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor’s satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry,
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.
In the end, adaptability starts with attitude, and that attitude is poetic.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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