Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Pig and Possum Teach Poetry

The categorization of this piece for the Index gave me pause. Should it be memoir, as I recall childhood? Or theory of criticism, since I make a general point about poetry? Hesitating, I considered using the first category of familiar essays, but decided finally that it was fundamentally critical comment on Brooks and Kelly, two twentieth century writers, and thus belongs in the index list with other criticism of post-medieval authors.

Because thematics are the simplest literary element to engage in class, students often consider ideas to be the stuff of poetry. The most dreadful expression in pedagogy – “What is the author trying to say?” – always suggests to me that, rather than being more skilled than most at verbal expression, the writer is tongue-tied and must struggle even to express some simple sentiment such as “the bad suffer in the end” (though the teacher has no similar difficulty). I neither believe that the writer has any privileged access to truth nor that poetry has any business conveying ideas that could be formulated much more succinctly in prose.
My own experience suggests rather that the seed of poetry, for both the writer and the reader, is playing with words and with concepts. [1] The poet is in this way no different from the painter who likes to fiddle and manipulate forms and colors or the composer who does the same with sounds. My own poetic notebooks from adolescence contain no attempts to snare great truths or startling insights. Rather they preserve isolated words and phrases that caught my fancy and seemed worth collecting for possible future use as well as endless experimental attempts to write coherently in a wide variety of metrical forms. Sound effects – the weakest aspect of poetry these days – not only dominated for me, but they do for most young consumers of poetry. Nursery rhymes, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Gelett Burgess, all depend primarily on the music of words. Sound jostles with sentiment in Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses [2], but doubtless the first element was for the children and the second for their parents who had already forgotten the charm of incantatory utterance.
Probably the most significant influences in my poetic development prior to middle school were Freddy the Pig and Pogo Possum. Walter R. Brooks wrote the Freddy books between 1927 and 1958 (they have been reissued by Overlook Press), and, though they continue to attract devoted followers among young and old, their readership has diminished considerably since their heyday in the forties and fifties when I read, I believe, the entire series. My brother James and I were devoted to Freddy. James is two years older than I and, as I recall, wrote Walter R. Brooks a fan letter. He also recommended Brooks’ work on a local library radio show featuring kids commenting on their favorite books. (It is little wonder that he is now a distinguished professor of literature.) I have distinct memory of the location to which I repeatedly returned on the Sioux City library shelves in search of a story I had not yet read.
Apart from twenty-six Freddy the Pig books, Brooks published a good number of short stories and two novels for adults as well as working for the New Yorker where he wrote the then-anonymous “Talk of the Town.” Another of his children’s short stories has the dubious distinction of introducing the character of Mr. Ed, the talking horse, which later ran for five years on television. [3] Still, his very first publication had been a sonnet, and the pig of his imagination wrote poetry.
On the dust jacket of The Collected Poems of Freddy the Pig (1953), Freddy wears a laurel wreath as well as an ascot and a dressing gown from Percy Dovetonsil’s wardrobe. Most of the works reprinted there had appeared in one or another of the novels and are doubtless best studied in context, but a survey of Freddy’s poetry in isolation is sufficient for my present point. Brooks’ pig favors meter and rhyme, in contradistinction to the fashions prevalent in the human poetry of the day, sometimes edging close to pure delight in sound.

Here come the caribou and kangaroos and camels,
The koodoos, zebus, zebras, and yaks.
“Circus Marching Song”

The poems are sometimes free-handed in their alliteration, as in the title “Bees, Bothered by Bold Bears, Behave Badly” and through four stanzas in “P as in Pig.”

This is the song of Frederick,
Patriot, poet, and pig;
In pedigree, princely, patrician,
In appearance, both pleasing and plig.

(That final word, incidentally, receives a footnote. [4])
His rhymes could be as inventive as Byron’s in Don Juan, linking, for instance, “necktie” with “bedecked I” (in “No. 6: The Whiskers”), “separate” (the adjective) with “pepper it” (in “No. 4: The Mouth”), and “swoop at her” with “Jupiter” (in “Flying Wings”).
Rather than dealing with “problems,” as many children’s books have come to do – a new sibling, bullying, racial prejudice – Freddy was a poet of escapism, of dalliance in the realm of the whimsical imagination. One finds in his works an entire section devoted to independence and free wandering, praising precisely the autonomy denied to children. Freddy sings songs of the open road (not about homelessness).

You wash your face in the clear, cold, dew,
And you say good-night to the moon,
And the wind in the tree-tops sings you to sleep
With a drowsy boughs-y tune.
“The Open Road”

The whole point, far from clarifying the conditions of life, which children as well as adults often find difficult, is to avoid reality with a gay and sonorous leap of the fancy. The same purposes are served by a section of cowboy poems including “From the Ballad of Two-Gun Freddy” in which the pig, whose enemy Flint cowers before him on his knees, “just laughs and pulls his moustache,” then proceeds to “plug” his foe. The delights of his cowboy life go beyond cold-blooded killing, however. Contrary to the didactic mode of children’s literature (though Brooks admittedly spent a portion of his narrative time advocating standards of fifties decency), the poetic Freddy exults that the cowboy need “never use a toothbrush, never use a comb.” As a seven-year-old, that was a theme I could enjoy. In play Freddy could adopt the pose of an anti-hero who aspired to look like Struwwelpeter, while parents play little role in the Freddy books.
Should this seem an indulgence of juvenile perversity, Freddy was capable of adult metaphysical perversity as well. Of his “Ode to Nothing,” he insists,

It seeks no meaning to convey,
It has no subject, point, or plot.
It must mean something, you will say –
But I assure you it does not.

I thought of the pig when, many years later in graduate school, I read William IX’s “Farai un vers de dreyt nien” which begins “I’ve made this verse of nothing at all.” This is not the only time I saw parallels with Freddy’s poetry during my later studies. Is not the following couplet redolent of Marvell?

Yet tho there's nothing to prevent
Bad manners in the firmament . . .
from Freddy and the Spaceship

He was capable of actual parody as well, of Scott, for instance, in “Breathes there a pig with soul so dead” (from Freddy and the Bean Home News).
Note how Freddy in “Thoughts on Teeth” moves from the easy and obvious word “steaks” to the spicy-odd “pickled pears” and then the sweet (and toothsome) by and by “angel cakes” only to follow up with reference to Timbuctoo that conjures the imagination as well as Coleridge’s Xanadu. (For any reader seeking useful information, the same poem gets around to teaching about poultry gizzards in later verses.)

The teeth are used in chewing steaks
And pickled pears and angel cakes-
A list of all the things they chew
Would reach from here to Timbuctoo.
from Freddy and Simon the Dictator

Walt Kelly, who drew Pogo (after working for Disney Studios and doing political cartoons) from the early forties until his death in 1973 is less faded, perhaps, from popular consciousness than Brooks. His comic strip, doubtless one of the greatest ever penned, featured Kelly’s clever and precise draftsmanship, the smallest details significant, but his paramount skill was surely verbal wit. As a preteen I owned all the reprinted books. (I was faithful until I began buying Jules Feiffer’s after his collection Sick Sick Sick was published in 1958.) My own drawings of Church Lafemme and Porkypine were taped to my fifth-grade bedpost. I was delighted when, in 1956, a record titled Songs of the Pogo [5] appeared, which I promptly purchased and proceeded to memorize all the lyrics.
I found the Okefenokee milieu an attractive vision of prelapsarian sociability, where the characters idle away their time in comradely verbal play with occasional fishing expeditions or other projects to ease them through the endless afternoons. In the “old hospitality of the land of tussock and hammock” [6] Pogo himself was a straight man, nearly as boring as the later Mickey Mouse, but his associates defined a veritable anatomy of humors: Albert the appetitive alligator whose capacious mouth seems always open, unless he is chewing on a cigar; Howland Owl, the know-nothing pedant; Churchy LaFemme, so simple and innocent in self-interest; not to mention all the rest, numbering eventually in the hundreds, each fully defined, some with not only individual voices, but with distinctive lettering in the balloons as well.
I have recently reread the initial book, titled simply Pogo which contains strips from October 1948 to June of 1949, and most references to follow, those noted by dates, are from that volume. The high crest of Kelly’s work may have come later, but the essential elements were present from the very first.
Though the general scene was beguiling to me, clearly the unique glory of the strip was the verbal play. Kelly’s animals use a consistent idiolect, called by fans “swampspeak,” which has only a tenuous relation to Southern dialect of any sort. Critter, pot licker, mammy, git, chillun, even “hootin’ and hollerin’, possibly “easy as sugar pie” may represent real speech patterns, but Kelly was unrestrained by reality. He fancifully deformed words for the pure fun of it (differments, snicker-snackering and wiggleworming, wuxtry, fotch), introduced extra syllables in words (rackety coon, horribobble) and devised entirely new ones (rowrbazzle, poolaverate). Kelly no sooner introduces “flea talk” than he leaps another level by imagining flea talk in dialect. [7] He enjoys learned words as exotic objects: perchance, faugh, huzzah, plebian, chilblains, billets doux.
His dialogue is constantly poetic, meters come and go, rhyme words fall as though at random, and allusions proliferate, allusions I somehow found fascinating even when I did not understand them until years later, such as the trio of bats, Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, or Simple J. Malarkey’s chilling warning, “it don't pay to tinker forever with chance. Ha Ha.” [8] (That Finnegan’s Wake remains constantly in print testifies to the lasting pleasures of consuming a semi-intelligible text.)
Kelly is not averse to quoting Shakespeare, [9] and was partial to the same verbal games as the Elizabethan master. In Okefenokee puns pop up like bubbles in soda water. There “fission,” one of the more frightening words of the post-Hiroshima world, is conflated with the mild and pleasant pastime of “fishin’. [10] The strip approaches a “who’s on first” routine with Thomas Dewey’s surname. [11] Albert stretches language nearly to the breaking point when he groans “ivory groanin’ overalls” at Howland Owl’s vision of academia. [12]
Though Kelly created a brilliantly innovative variation on the form, he retained the “funny animals” convention (which is, to a large extent, a broader comedy convention) that no one is really hurt or even in peril, no one is in serious need, and the animals’ failings are seen in the kindliest of lights. The characters in Pogo live in a utopian state that, were they human, might be called post-industrial. Like Pooh’s hunny pot, their larders do not seem to require replenishing. When Beauregard asks Pogo to suppose himself “coming home after a hard day’s work,” Pogo replies, “Kind of a strain on my s’poser.” [13]
Yet their innocence is a pose. Whether one thinks Pogo looks much like an opossum or not, he finds hanging by his tail (as a letter suggests he properly ought) impossible. [14] Similarly the crane finds crane behavior unachievable. [15] In a further trope, in both these cases the “facts” about animals are contained in written documents, not observed from life, for where on the newspaper page could he find a living creature? Thus, with the exception of an occasional fish, they do not eat each other, though the possibility emerges now and then. In the very opening sequence, the benign possum unsuccessfully tries to convince a worm that to be his catfish bait is a “high class career type job.” [16] Albert, the appetitive alligator, finds first a bird and later a pollywog in his capacious mouth. [17]
Self-reflective passages, such as characters’ mentioning their role in a comic strip, appear periodically to season and complicate the scene. A butterfly threatens to “as for a transfer” to the neighboring strip; Porkypine considers himself an “employe”; and Pogo himself says he is “a big comic strip character.” [18] Animals refer to their species as their profession.
Such play with signified and signifier, the natural and the artificial, true and false lies at the very heart of art. The poem, the painting, the dance are composed with exuberant abstract play of sounds and concepts. I owe a childhood understanding of these fundamental elements of the aesthetic to Brooks and Kelly, each of whom constructed a world at once escapist and real. Reading the books of Freddy the Pig and Pogo the reader relishes both what is understood and what remains beyond the understanding, all the while listening to the spirited and mysterious music of words.
I was a great library patron, but among my first paperback purchases, probably for a quarter or thirty-five cents, along with an anthology of American short stories and Henrik Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, was a copy of Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. My favorite piece in this last was “Ulalume,” indicating that the music of words, even splayed off from meaning, continued to captivate me. In high school I memorized most of Edith Sitwell’s Fa├žade, and years later I found myself translating incantatory Dada lyrics with willfully bizarre imagery and studying Gorgias, the rhetorician whose speeches were praised as incantatory, hypnotic, and beautiful rather than true. I had well learned the lesson of the pig and the possum with whom I had become so well acquainted in my childhood, those wonderful animals who passed the time of day playing, investigating what machines they could build with images and words.

1. I recall how for Huizinga in Homo Ludens play was not only at the root of art, but of war and legal procedures as well.

2. Originally published as Penny Whistles.

3. The series was developed and directed by Arthur Lubin, director of the Francis the Talking Mule movies.

4. The note reads “‘Excuse me, said Freginald, ‘but what does plig mean?’
‘I made it up,’ said Freddy. ‘It just came to me. Sounds well, don’t you think?’”

5. The lyrics were by Kelly and the music by Kelly and Norman Monath.

6. 10/26/48.

7. 12/28/48.

8. Malarkey, a caricature of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, appears in The Pogo Papers.

9. An allusion to King Lear reference appears on 11/19/48 and to Julius Caesar on 11/17/48.

10. 1/3/29.

11. 11/8/48.

12. p. 1/5/49. Later a bug says he will graduate “magnolia come louder.” 11/8/48

13. 12/6/48.

14. 5/28/49.

15. 10/12/48.

16. 10/5/48, repeated 1/26/49.

17. See 10/24/48 and 6/1/49.

18. 10/20/48, 11/9/48, 11/12/48.

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