LOOKING AT ANIMALS has always been a matter both of looking out and looking in. St. Francis, gossiping among birds, acted out an ancient human wish to draw closer to the rest of animal nature; it has often been easier to spot stubbornness in an ox than in ourselves. The very fact that animals do not speak our language and yet are so closely linked in our thoughts with all manner of expression makes them likely subjects for poets, especially poets in their more playful, "lighter" moods. Consider, for example, three recently published books of "light verse" -- itself a beast not easily collared or defined -- all dealing in some way with animals.
First published in England in 1897, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts fetched its author Hilaire Belloc a respectable income and flattering if exaggerated comparison with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Belloc was also a serious writer-journalist whose reactionary political and social views were so closely aligned with those of G. K. Chesterton that George Bernard Shaw, refusing to acknowledge their independent existences, dubbed them jointly the "Chesterbelloc," a fabulous beast to be accosted at one's peril; he is chiefly remembered today, however, for his lighter literary accomplishments, of which The Bad Child's Book is perhaps his lightest and best.
With tongue in cheek, Belloc incites little readers not to tear his book to shreds while pardoning them in advance for being the "bad" children they, as normal curious children, cannot help becoming now and then. He parodies not only the shelvesful of remorselessly unforgiving cautionary verse that generations of moralists foisted upon the young but poetry itself, proving himself at last once or twice the master not of the ode or the ele9y but of the unprovoked verbal attack: "Rhinoceros, your hide looks all undone,/ you do not take my fancy in the least:/ You have a horn where other brutes have none:/ Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast."
Much of the fun, the "lightness," of this maddeningly willful little verse, comes from its shattering of a taboo: august poetry usually is not allowed to be so nasty or so rude -- any more than we are. Paradoxically, light verse often depends for its effects on just such calculated tamperings with matters as serious as social, ethical or esthetic ideals; as these change, so do the borderlines around what we call funny. For readers today, Belloc's whale-hunting jokes will probably have lost whatever comic edge they may once have had; his verse about the foolish, learned fish out of water who "has not sufficient brains/ To go into the water when it rains," on the other hand, may well be timeless.
Wallace Tripp's black-and-white action drawings, newly done for this edition of The Bad Child's Book, are, alas, freighted with precious characterizations and with well-meaning but flat-footed highjunks that rarely make contact with Belloc's never fully muzzled darker gifts for arsenic, diatribe and invective. Tripp plays too eagerly for the reader's laughs; the most effective light verse illustrators-Edward Lear, Edward Gorey, and Belloc's own original collaborator, B. Blackwell, among others -- always keep a straight face as they 9o about the infuriating business of disarranging our world. (An inexpensive paperback reprint of the original Belloc/Blackwell book is available from Dover.)
In the skeptical age into which Hilaire Belloc and later Christopher Isherwood were born, skill at doggerel-writing was almost as much the mark of a gentleman as had been skill in amorous sonnet-writing in the chivalrous days of Sidney and Shakespeare. People One Ought To Know, a book of satirical verse and animal drawings, is the curious product of a gentlemanly collaboration between Isherwood, then a recent Cambridge graduate, and 11-year-old Sylvain Mangeot, son of the celebrated violinist Andre Mangeot, whose secretary Isherwood was. Technically Isherwood's first book, it was completed in 1925 and has never before been published.
Sylvain, having acquired a sheaf of specially fine handmade paper, set about doodling a series of beguilingly clever, bright watercolor-and-line animal caricatures, which he challenged his older friend to match with a brace of humorous companion verses. Young Mangeot proved to be a harassing master, turning out all 29 drawings reproduced in this little volume in a week and expecting his collaborator to keep pace. With affecting simplicity, he declared the project done when he ran out of paper.
As for Isherwood's end of the bargain, consider "Cormorant," the first poem to be finished: "The common cormorant (or shag)/ Lays eggs inside a paper bag./ You follow the idea, no doubt?/ It's to keep the lightning out.// But what these unobservant birds/ Have never thought of, is that herds/ Of wandering bears might come with buns/ And steal the bags to hold the crumbs."
What nonsense# But in later poems he becomes less freewheeling, less open to the pure (and in a certain sense terrifying) chaos of all truly memorable nonsense. People One Ought To Know mainly consists of mild satirical swipes at foibles and pomposities of the artists' own circle and world. Light verse turns leaden the moment footnotes must be added; readers will need to know something about the rules of soccer and cricket and to recognize the names of various English landmarks to find the comic point in several of these verses.
As handsomely designed and produced a book as one might want (the dust jacket is framed with a decorative marbled border; a photo of the authors is reprinted as a frontispiece), People One Ought To Know is itself a footnote to '20s England and so, among other things, to the early pages of Isherwood's own memoir Lions and Shadows. Sylvain Mangeot, precocious observer of animals and men, went on, incidentally, to become a journalist with Reuters and the BBC.
A new book of animal poems, mysteriously titled Did Adam Name the Vinegarroon? is a diverse bestiary of 26 animal poems and accompanying drawings -- one for each letter of the alphabet. The assembled company includes the extinct Woolly Mammouth, the fabulous Kraken, and the common snail. X.J. Kennedy's poems are broadly various in tone and poetic intention, ranging from the fugitive, lyrical "Yellowthroat" to the manic, coiled-spring nonsense of "Roc," "Tyrannosaur," and "Quetzal": "The crested Quetzal seldom tours/ Great Neck or Walla Walls./ It stays at home, official bird/ Of sultry Guatemala . . ."
The poet who observes that "flies seem to think the world is theirs" is apt to have readers philosophically nodding their assent as they reach for their swatters; the likeliest response to crocodiles in "bumpy green apparel" who "paddle round their jungle pool/ Like pickles in a barrel" is a hearty laugh. These well-crafted poems unfold with a poise, economy and offbeat wit that is bound to leave receptive readers with a finer sense of language's more beautiful as well as more spritely colorations.
Heidi Johanna Selig's black-and-white drawings are skillfully tuned both to the whimsy and close seeing of Kennedy's verse. Selig evokes a floating world of dreamlike, pop-surreal images, a changing soup or sea of metaphor and creation from out of which Lion, Pangolin, Vinegarroon emerge. Humorous touches are snuck in mainly around the pictures' margins, allowing each animal, first of all, to stand, swim or hover on its own. Color is not needed to enliven these drawings, which unlike the Quetzal, showy bird, do not require "scarlet underparts" and "plumes of golden-green" to hold our charmed attention. LEONARD S. MARCUS is at work on a biography of Margaret Wise Brown.