THE GNOMES of whimsy must have been at work to arrange for four superlative books of nonsense in a single season. The high-minded and the morally splendid are dismissed. The words and rhythms are rolling about on the floor and giggling under the bed where, like Morris Bishop's lurking preposition, they ask only: What should I come Up from out of in under for?
(Linguaphile, a British word-lover's magazine, recently announced a contest for the longest string of piled-on prepositions. I don't know who won but I will back Bishop's string of seven against the best in Albion.)
Morris Bishop (1893-1973) went to school when English was still an academically respected language with an acknowledged relationship to Latin and to grammatical principle. Armed with a disciplined tongue, he attempted "serious" poetry until his own discipline, in due humility, told him he had nothing to say that others had not said better. In an age when most would-be poets seem to think that the only prerequisite is the excitation of one's own ignorance, Bishop's decision was an act of lofty clarity. It also led him to understand that he had achieved a certain level of technical competence that would serve for light verse. Mary Tuttle cares for knick-knacks And it gives her dreadful shocks That her coarse-grained husband, Dick, lacks Taste, and all her knick-knacks knocks.
Biship, that is to say, is without redeeming social significance, unless one is willing to count precision of language and wit as a grace of civil exchange. Bishop is a master of the tongue. This book is not for language-muddling Johnny "working at his own level." Let me yet hope that some of our more literate teachers can lead some of our more literate Johnnies to the experience of Bishop's sweetly mastered tongue.
David McCord wrote the loving foreword for this posthumous collection, and by special arrangement of the gnomes, he also turns up on this season's whimsy list. What is there to say of David McCord? He is a national resource, and an inexhaustible one. No one has more whatchamacallits and thingamajigs, nor more madly loving rhymes to dance them to. He is not only every literate child's jolly uncle, but a master observer and reporter of nature.
In the last month I have read and discarded a dozen tineared and condescending books of poetry for children. I wish I could force those failed authors to read and memorize McCord and Bishop until they learn to hear the resonance of language truly engaged in itself. I doubt that they can. They are bad writers precisely because they cannot hear. Yet perhaps they may hear at least enough to realize, as humbly as Bishop once did, that the art of it lies beyond them.
I wish, too, that I had space to quote from McCord. I could from many of his past books -- lovely rollicking poems about picket fences, the Axolotl, and Chief Wotapotami. But in this book McCord has built his poems like zippers: they are a fine mesh and none of the teeth will come loose without unraveling everything. Read them for yourself if you are willing to have fun. And remember that this inexhaustible man is edging toward 90 by now. He just may have decided to live forever. May it be so.
McCord is also an admirer and a passionate scholar of Edward Lear. I share his enthusiasm for most of Lear's nonsense. What chuckles better than "The Owl and the Pussy Cat" or "The Jumblies"? But though I incur McCord's wrath, I cannot share his enthusiasm for these "limericks."
The illustrations are superb. Lear was a master draughtsman. He was, in fact, Queen Victoria's drawing master, if that adds any hope to the dollhouse of the British monarchy. In any case there is in all of these sketches the easy fluency and wit of an art that conceals itself.
Yet the "limericks" themselves, though I read them over with every willingness to be amused, come to me only as a series of anticlimaxes. And though they are presented as if for children, they are too coy and too British for the American child: There was an Old Man of the Wrekin whose shoes made a horrible creaking; But they said, "Tell me whether your shoes are of leather, Or or what, you old man of the Wrekin?"
Lear wrote his "limericks" not as we do now in five lines, but in three, as shown. But add that he did not know he was writing "limericks": Lear died in 1888 and the word "limerick" is not attested in print until about 10 years after his death. The market guide remains the same: if you are already in love with Lear, you will want this collection for love's sake, but be wary of thinking American children can be won to literacy by it.
Turn them loose instead on Ogden Nash. To be sure no Nash enthusiast will ever agree with the choices of any editor. How dare Blake leave out "Quartet for Prosperous Love Children," the one about being in a dark alley with Cesar Borgia coming torgia, or, say, one about sitting at one's desk on Madison Avenue and telling yourself you have a very important job, havenue? Cavil is the nature of this passionate game. But Blake has selected well -- not quite well enough, of course -- but well, and he has illustrated his choices deftly.
Yet let me have my cavil. Nash stumbled onto a happy formula for a long-lined, rhythmless, deliberately bad poem with outrageous rhymes. When the formula was still new to him he worked it with dazzling effect. In time the first zany sense of discovery faded, and only the formula was left to be worked almost inertly. Who was it wrote "Find out what you know how to do; then don't do it"?
I am less than happy about the longish "lumpen-poems" in this collection. It is the short, invertedly epigrammatic ones that shine for me. And shine they do. Dick and Jane may need a little, bright, parental guidance to these poems. But why not? Call it a good sort of togetherness. Daddy can have his sort of fun with the poems; Mummy, hers; and the child, his or hers. Certainly they must all learn sometime that "In the world of mules/ There are no rules," (but that in this house, by Heaven, there had better be at least a few -- meaning You).
And how can any child be allowed to grow up without knowing that: The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks That practically conceal its sex. I think it clever of the turtle In such a fix to be so fertile.
The gnomes of whimsy, as I begin by saying, have done a fine season's work. A Merry Christmas to them.