BY this stairway narrow, steep, Thou shalt climb from song to sleep; From sleep to dream and song once more;— Sleep well, sweet friend, sleep well, dream deep.
Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there]
Hughes Mearns (1875 – 1965)
Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three The man was waiting there for me But when I looked around the hall I couldn’t see him there at all! Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more! Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair A little man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today Oh, how I wish he’d go away..
The concept of a one-hit wonder is usually applied to pop-songs, but the same can be said of novelists and poets. Hughes Mearns’ poem Antigonish, is an example of a one hit wonder, as I can’t find any other poems attributed to him that have survived in the common domain. This little nursery rhyme like poem apparently had quite an influence on some children in the English speaking world, maybe because of its slightly scary imagery and the fact that children and adults are sometimes afraid of things that don’t exist in the dark. Antigonish is about the bogeyman who makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up. David Bowie’s rock song is rumored to have been influenced by this poem and if you listen to the lyrics, there are similarities, whether it is intentional or by coincidence is up for debate.
By Jack Prelutsky
In the desolate depths of a perilous place
the bogeyman lurks, with a snarl on his face.
Never dare, never dare to approach his dark lair
for he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
He skulks in the shadows, relentless and wild
in his search for a tender, delectable child.
With his steely sharp claws and his slavering jaws
oh he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
Many have entered his dreary domain
but not even one has been heard from again.
They no doubt made a feast for the butchering beast
and he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
In that sulphurous, sunless and sinister place
he’ll crumple your bones in his bogey embrace.
Never never go near if you hold your life dear,
for oh! . . . what he’ll do . . . when he gets you!
Mother doesn’t want a dog. Mother says they smell, And never sit when you say sit, Or even when you yell. And when you come home late at night And there is ice and snow, You have to go back out because The dumb dog has to go.
Mother doesn’t want a dog. Mother says they shed, And always let the strangers in And bark at friends instead, And do disgraceful things on rugs, And track mud on the floor, And flop upon your bed at night And snore their doggy snore.
Mother doesn’t want a dog. She’s making a mistake. Because, more than a dog, I think She will not want this snake.
One of the delights of having small children in your life is the opportunity to sit down and read to them every day. It’s a way of unplugging from the adult world and entering the world and ideas of children’s books. One of my favorite books when my children were little was Viorst’s; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I read it so many times, I think I remember the opening lines by heart – “I went to bed with gum in my mouth and woke up with gum in my hair. Its going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” Viorst continues on to illustrate in a funny way, that things happen and we all have to deal with it.
It feels like we have been a streak of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days lately, more than our fair share. And unlike Alexander, where a scissors and a bit of snipping can set things right on the first disaster, there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves and our children from the onslaught of no good that is all around us. The senseless tragedy in Minneapolis this week in the death of Dante Wright is beyond comprehension and I am not going to even attempt to comment other than to acknowledge the tremendous sadness myself and others in my immediate community are feeling. No words feel like they address the scope of the frustration and sadness of the ongoing police violence in the Twin Cities.
For today, I am going to retreat into the simplicity of children’s verse and blot out this terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. And offer a silent prayer for my city, that some level of healing happens and change is not just rhetoric but real, real soon.
by Shel Silverstein
Sandra’s seen a leprechuan Eddie touched a troll, Laurie danced with witches once, Charlie found some goblins’ gold. Donald heard a mermaid sing. Susy spied an elf., But all the magic I have known I’ve had to make myself.
A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —
Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known under his pen name Lewis Carroll, authored some of the most complicated and inventive poems and stories in the last 200 years. Both Jabberwocky and The Hunting Of The Snark are unfairly in my mind categorized as nonsensical poems or pigeon holed as “children’s” literature. Yet, I have met more than one grown adult who knew only one poem by memory and that poem was Jabberwocky and could recite it brilliantly after a couple of beers.
What about Carroll’s imagination continues to connect with generation after generation of readers? I believe it’s because his “nonsensical” literature actually makes more sense than some of our real life experiences. Danger and unfairness abounds in Alice in Wonderland but in the end she returns safe and sound to her sister’s side to share her adventure. Carroll turns the world upside down and topsy-turvy not as a parody but because that is how life can feel for many of us. Crafting all of his writing as “children’s” stories is the real brilliance of his subversive literature, allowing readers of all ages to identify with the humor and inventiveness while letting each of us decide how it connects to our imaginations. If you haven’t read Jabberwocky recently, here is a link.
Carroll’s ability to make up words is a gift limited to very few writers. I have only attempted it a couple of times in my own writing and nothing as bold or timeless as Carroll’s additions to the English language. The tradition of using made up words is a hallmark of poets that goes back to oral traditions by story tellers from the beginning of time. Maybe all new words start out as nonsense. And only become respected members of dialogue as time passes. Do you or your family have a made up word that fits perfectly in your vocabulary? Is it alive and well and have you immortalized it in a poem?
The Voice Of The Lobster
by Lewis Carroll
”Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
‘You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.’
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.
When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark:
But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.’
‘I passed by his garden, and marked, with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panter were sharing a pie:
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy, and meat,
While the Old had the dish as its share of the treat.
When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl,
And concluded the banquet by [eating the owl.]