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Dr. Seuss

By A.E. Stallings

Daisy’s post with its reference to Dr. Seuss’ The Foot Book reminds me of how important an influence Dr. Seuss is–acknowledged or not, consciously or unconsciously–to metrical poets of my generation. He gave us part of our ear for rhyme and our ear for rhythm. Sure, he is usually metrically quite regular, but the rhythms are highly varied–monosyllables and polysyllables, heavy and light nuggets of sound–as they are distributed over the metrical feet, in a breezily and distinctly American vernacular. All you need to do to appreciate Dr. Seuss’s nimble prosody is to pick up any other contemporary book of children’s verse. So much of it is so lackluster–full of clunky, predictable rhymes, barely scanning, and larded with filler. (Julia Donaldson, of Gruffalo fame, is a rare exception, though not quite in the same league.) When I try to read the books of plodding prosody to our toddler, he frowns a page or two in and announces, “The End.”
Of course, Seuss is subversive too–what could be more subversive in a Puritan society than to announce to kids that “Fun is good”? We romanticize childhood to the extent that we shun adulthood, but being a child is also to be helpless and in the power of others (as anyone with a toddler can tell you, this is extremely frustrating!). Yet “A person’s a person no matter how small.”


He plays wonderful games with grammar that are as slyly didactic as they are ludic. How better to encapsulate the quirks and inconsistencies of English plurals than in the four syllables, “one fish, two fish”? Or to play with our expectations the other way round:
Then he did the same thing
To the other Whos’ houses
Leaving crumbs
Much too small
For the other Who’s mouses!
(Changing “who” from a relative pronoun to a proper noun is another twinkling wink at the rules of grammar.)
The Lorax, of course, couldn’t be more topical. It is clear as to its moral, but it conveys by showing more than telling (after all, the whole narrative is in the voice of the Onceler, a layer of dramatic irony). It isn’t, I would venture to say, preachy.
If you ever get a chance to pick up the CD of Dr. Seuss songs from the TV specials of the late sixties (The Original TV Sound Tracks Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas & Horton Hears a Who)–I think I picked up mine at a grocery store while Stateside one Xmas–it is a bargain. The songs, written by Dr. Seuss himself and set to music by Poddany, are as brilliant as the books. There’s his delicious “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,” which I think has been covered by a number of bands. And the “alarmingly plausible” macaronic Christmas carol, which I can only call, “Wha Who Wha Who.” In his song for the Wickersham Brothers from Horton Hears a Who, Seuss encapsulates the occasionally paranoid streak in American politics that seems to be the flip side of our inalienable rights, in the voice of some sinister hear-no-evil see-no-evil Darwinian apes. “Pretending to talk to who’s who are not” is, they announce:
“A plot, plot, plot plot”.
Luckily they are
“Hot-shot spotters of rotters and plotters
And we’re going to save our sons and our daughters
From YOU”
Horton the elephant is apparently out to “kill free enterprise” and “wreck our compound interest rates,” and
Shut our schools
and steal our jewels
And even change our football rules
Take away our garden tools
And lock us up in vestibules!
BUT for-tu-na-te-ly we’re no fools
OK, I had to try to jot that down in blue crayon as the CD was playing–so it might not be totally accurate, but you get the picture. Fun is good.
.

Comments (11)

  • On February 6, 2008 at 11:34 am Michael Gushue wrote:

    Fun *is* good, and Wallace Stevens agreed (it must be fun).
    Maybe it’s narrow-minded of me, or my natural distrust of market domination, but I’ve been down on Seuss ever since hearing this anecdote about Anthony Hecht:
    Hecht decided that he wanted to become a poet. He announced his new vocation to his horrified parents who at once enlisted a family friend, Theodore Geisel, to dissuade him. Geisel, better known as the children’s author Dr Seuss, advised Hecht to read the biography of Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher. Surmising that he was being pushed towards more lucrative ways than poetry of writing for money, Hecht never read the book. Later in life, he joked that his main piece of advice to young writers was never to read the biography of Joseph Pulitzer: but perhaps appropriately, he took the Pulitzer Prize for poetry anyway in 1968.
    So I’ve been wary since of Seuss. I think more fun is to be had with Good Night Moon, or James Marshall’s Piggy in the Puddle.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 4:57 pm Andrew Shields wrote:

    Alicia, I remember you reading “The Cat in the Hat” to Miles on our couch in Basel when he was not quite three!
    And your comments on why “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” is not as good. 🙂

  • On February 6, 2008 at 9:23 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Alicia, I was wondering if your son might be available for a critical review of my manuscript. Ha, I love how he frowns and announces “The End.” I count Dr. Seuss as one of my major influences, along with Burl Ives and Shirley Temple, whose songs I listened to when I was sick as a child.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 9:30 pm Jose wrote:

    “All you need to do to appreciate Dr. Seuss’s nimble prosody is to pick up any other contemporary book of children’s verse. So much of it is so lackluster–full of clunky, predictable rhymes, barely scanning, and larded with filler. ”
    A children’s book I intensely dislike precisely for this reason is the “classic” Goodnight Moon.

  • On February 6, 2008 at 11:07 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    A subversive, slyly didactic, twinkling wink of a post!
    Thanks!
    Emily

  • On February 7, 2008 at 2:00 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks for the comments…
    I actually thought of including the Hecht anecdote–which I encountered in the excellent Between the Lines series, Hecht in conversation with Philip Hoy. Revealingly, Hecht calls Ted Giesel, “the cartoonist.” I don’t think the story reflects poorly on either of them, really. Giesel was put in an awkward position by Hecht’s parents, and Hecht was right to distrust advice to disuade him from his avocation. One can see that the two men would not really be on the same wavelength–“fun is good” is not exactly Hechtian. But both will survive in their work.
    “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” is a disaster! A warning against sequels. But the original “the Cat in the Hat” continues to amaze me. I think what appeals is that, like fairy tales, it gives a glimpse into a larger darker world–there is a sense of real danger behind the antics. There appears to be no father in the picture; the mother is out–the kids are alone, with the little boy in charge of his little sister Sally. A stranger comes in and breaks all kinds of house rules. There is the impotent super-Ego of the Fish, and the Ludic Id of the Cat. And I think, given the time period, “the Cat in the Hat” is almost like saying, the “dude in the hat” or what have you–only Seuss makes it an actual cat rather than a man. Eventually the boy stands up and takes control of the situation–and it all turns out fine. Though he pointedly does NOT tell his mother what has happened. I wonder if the book could even be published today! And all this using only 220 different words. (Green Eggs and Ham uses even fewer.)
    Can you tell I spend way too much time analyzing children’s books? What else is there to do when you read them aloud a half dozen times a day. My husband and I decided that Go, Dog. Go! would be great CIA code: Two dogs in the water. One dog under the house. The green dog is up. The yellow dog is down. Etc.
    I think it was Miles who introduced me to the Gruffalo…

  • On February 7, 2008 at 7:12 am Daisy wrote:

    Well, Jose,
    I think Good Night Moon is quite elegant–the pomo alternation between black and white and color, the gradual dimming of the light in the green room throughout the book, the repetition and variation in the text, the tension between what’s said and not said, the little mouse, and the brilliant nod to nihilism in the blank “goodnight nobody” page, which teaches our children that there is Nothing Out There. However, if you really hate GNM, do what my husband does when reading it to our daughter: add an “R”: Good Night Moron.
    Daisy
    PS I heard that the “Quiet Old Lady Whispering Hush” used to have a lit cigarette in her oversized bunny paw, and that this was removed in more recent versions. Can anyone say whether this is true?

  • On February 7, 2008 at 10:54 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    I actually have no direct experience of “Goodnight Moon,” though I hear a lot about it.
    I think Daisy is quite right to differentiate between (illustrated) children’s verse and picture books. A picture book is an integrated art form–there is often a tension or irony between what is said and what is depicted, or they comment on each other, and the two work in concert. Maybe the pinacle of this is Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

  • On February 7, 2008 at 2:21 pm J.E. Stone wrote:

    A.E., Thanks for this post. I, too, have been struck with how several children’s books that make use of rhyme and other prosodic elements have come to influence my own poetry in recent years, as I, too, have read books to a young child. “Go, Dog, Go” is one of my favorites with its sly and simultaneous complication and explication of prepositions.
    Kay Thompson’s Eloise books are yet another example. The run-on sentences and phrases, the invented words and terms, the method of arranging the lines on the page with attention to line breaks, the repetition and complication of words. Prosody is a living part of the language of these books, not a form to be filled out as in sonorous formal poets, etc. The language is dynamic, rather than using prosody to control or tame a text as do many writers of formal verse. I actually wrote a critical paper on “Eloise in Paris” during the course of my MFA.

  • On February 11, 2008 at 9:03 am Daisy wrote:

    Just wish to say that Seuss is now officially driving me mad, thanks to “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” True, Maisie’s little shudder of delight when we get to “This one has a little star, this one has a little car” almost makes up for it, but the freakin’ monosyllables are really really getting me down.

  • On April 26, 2008 at 10:39 pm Penelope Pelizzon wrote:

    I enjoyed this thread on Dr. Seuss. But let me put in a plug for his underappreciated magnum opus, DR. SEUSS’S SLEEP BOOK. Anyone with a child between six months and six years needs to lay hands on this right away. Really, the illustrations and verse are his sly Seuss-ish best. For example:
    At the fork of a road in the Vale of Va-Vode,/
    Five foot-weary salesmen have laid down their load./
    All day they’ve raced round in the heat at top speeds/
    Selling Zizzer-Zoof seeds, which nobody wants/
    Because nobody needs.

    What tired poet / zizzer-zoof salesman could fail to sympathize with the camel drivers splayed out beside their exotic wares in the drawing?
    Sweet dreams,
    Penelope Pelizzon


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, February 6th, 2008 by A.E. Stallings.