Thursday, December 31, 2020

Revisiting Mr. Lear


This blog began on a March evening in 2008 when it suddenly occurred to me that it would be fun to write some limericks. That same fateful night I ordered the famous collection of limericks that popularized the form, A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear. 

First published in 1846, the book is in the public domain. The copy that I purchased was the absolute worst - a hack job wherein someone copy and pasted the poems (probably from Project Gutenburg) into a self-publishing template. I read it once and put it on the shelf. The first humble step in my exploration of poetry.

About a decade later, my wife Claire was at a thrift store and found the beautiful hardback edition of A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear pictured here, which she kindly purchased for me. It actually collects all five of Mr. Lear's books of nonsense, and most shocking of all - they were all fully illustrated by the author!

This fact completely altered (elevated!) my appreciation of Lear's limericks, and rereading them was a transformative experience for me. So much of my exploration of poetry (and indeed the contents of this blog) has been trying to figure out what type of poetry I enjoy, and here, finally, was the answer: I enjoy poems that are illustrated!

Looking back through my poetry reviews, this rule never misses: Ogden Nash, W.S. Gilbert, Don Marquis, collections of Nonsense Verse, Children's Poetry. These are the poems I have enjoyed the most, and all are heavily illustrated. None of those poets take themselves too seriously, and know that a clever drawing can enhance the humor of a poem. Yet another combination of words and pictures that floats my boat. All the other poetry anthologies and collections I slogged through took themselves too seriously and failed to connect. Now I know what to look for in the poetry section of used book stores - pictures!

Anyway, Lear literally drew a small pen and ink illustration for every single one of his limericks. If, like I did, you have an unadorned copy, I beseech you to replace it with a proper illustrated copy. Reading all of this work again, and seeing all those ink drawings, I felt a strange kinship with Mr. Lear, spanning across 170+ years.

Then, last year, out of the blue, my mother sent me Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow, a meticulously researched biography of the man himself. I was shocked to learn that Lear's main profession was painting animals and landscapes. The humorous poems (and drawings!) that he is remembered for a century later were dashed off to amuse the children of his many friends. Literally just a bit of "nonsense" to help pass the time.

There were so many aspects of Lear's life, as a freelance artist and self-publisher, that I could relate to - running around town trying to get enough patrons to commission a book (Victorian Kickstarter!), or painting dozens of small watercolors to try and sell to make his rent. Like so many other authors throughout the history of publishing, he signed away all the rights to his poems for some quick money, and they have been in print ever since. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

Anyway, I have a much deeper appreciation for the man after all this reading and revisiting. I can't help but feel that if I could go back to his time, or he could come forward to mine, that we'd get along famously.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Baby Shower Poem

My wife Claire and I are expecting our first child in early 2016, so Claire's mom threw us a baby shower at the beginning of November.  As thank-you gifts, Claire's mom got everyone daffodil bulbs.  Claire made an illustration for little cards that were going to be attached to the bulbs (see below).

On the inside of the cards Claire had printed directions for how to plant the bulbs.  At the last minute, I asked if I could instead write a little poem to go inside.  I sat down for about fifteen minutes and came up with this:


Thank you for coming to our baby shower.
To show you our thanks, we got you this flower!
Right now it's in bulb form, still packed up inside,
Like the baby in Claire, who's going to hid
Until the new year, when her cries fill our room.
Follow these steps to have a quieter bloom!

Take the height of the bulb and times it by two,
or three, or four, or five; it's all up to you.
Bury it that far underneath fertile soil,
And if you would like a small tip for less toil,
Make sure the ground's freezing is one month away.
Be patient and wait, and on one special day
Your flower will arrive in its flower form,
Just like our daughter will be happily born!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My 2013-2014 Poetry Activity

It's been more than a year since I updated this blog, but believe it or not, I am still reading and thinking about poetry every day.  Here's what I have been reading in the last year or so:

It took me months and months, but I finally read every poem in the Faber Book of Children's Verse.  On the whole I would classify this anthology as "a stinker."  Any poems in here that I did enjoy (Lewis Carroll, etc.), I had already read in other collections.  The rest was hard to penetrate, either because it was referencing ancient British historical events which were very boring to this American reader, or because of the use of antiquated language (olde english? Gaelic?) that went over my head.

I'm not sure how an anthology with chapter headings such as "Kings, Queens and Heroes", "Magic", "Witches, Charms and Spells" and "Marvels and Riddles" could be so dull, but it was.  I feel sorry for any child who had this collection as their only introduction to poetry growing up.  Zzzzz.  I am not keeping this book!

The one exception was a great poem called "Etiquette" by Sir W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame).  In the poem, two gentlemen are stranded on a desert island, but they have not been introduced, so they refuse to talk to each other.  A bit of digging revealed that Sir Gilbert has a book of verse called "The Bab Ballads" which sounds so up my alley that I just ordered a copy.  If the rest of that collection is as enjoyable as "Etiquette" than I believe my reading of The Faber Book of Children's Verse will not have been in vain.

Last May, Greg took Claire and I to the Goodwill "Bins" in Portland, OR.  Claire bought a stack of VHS tapes and I bought a few books, including The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, which was going for $1.00 if I remember correctly.  

When Maurice Sendak died a few years ago, I remember reading a bunch of interviews with him, and in one he mentioned that he loved Emily Dickinson's work.  A few months ago I finally pulled this book out of my "READ ME" box and started reading a few of her poems each morning, before I write.

I would say about 1 in 50 really connects with me, and makes me actually feel something.  I suspect that ratio is more due to my own lack of sophistication and intelligence, rather than Ms. Dickinson's.  Anyway, I read her poetry on the toilet, so I'm pretty sure that's exactly how she wanted her work to be experienced.  :P

Three years after discovering his work, I still think that Ogden Nash is the greatest poet that ever lived.   I have dutifully been keeping an eye out for any of his collections at used book stores, flea markets, etc.  In the last year or so, I have come across three:

1) Bed Riddance: A Posy for the Indisposed with illustrations by Milton Glaser, published in 1969.  This is a collection of his poems all about health problems, going to the doctor, insomnia, etc. etc. etc.

AUGH, this book is so great it makes me want to tear my hair out!  Why doesn't stuff like this exist anymore???  You have a whole book of hilarious rhyming poetry, loaded with wit and wordplay.  Then you get Milton Glaser at the height of his Push-Pin fame to make wonderful, thoughtful illustrations which are interspersed every ten pages or so.  

And this wasn't some highfalutin, snobby poetry book.  It was meant for mass consumption.  You'd buy this book for your friend who was recuperating from surgery.  Something to lighten his mood.

It's so frustrating to me that poetry took the same path of "fine art" in the 1950s and became more abstract and inaccessible.  If you try to talk about poetry with most people now, in 2014, they're like "Poetry? Ugh!" because their only frame of reference is non-ryhming, formless dribble that is only decipherable by the poet who wrote it.  I read a Best American Poetry collection from within the last ten years, and if that's literally the best poetry has to offer these days, then I may just never read another poem written after 1971, the year Ogden Nash died.

2) Every One But Thee And Me with illustrations by John Alcorn, published in 1962.  These little books, with their charming illustrations awaken something deep inside me.  It's a feeling that says "This is exactly the kind of work I want to produce."  If I wasn't already 1400 pages down my cartooning path, I might seriously consider spending all of my creative time trying to master this art form.  I'm still working at it in my spare time (very... slowly...) but I am spending a lot of time these days thinking about ways to incorporate my love of (THIS) poetry into my comics work.  I need to believe that poetry could be made relevant and accessible to the general public again.  

Anyway, I'll get off my soap box, but Alcorn's illustrations are extremely charming and the poems couldn't be better.  My head spins when I start imagining a volume like this produced today.  There are so many great illustrators I would love to see approach work like this.  If only there were more top-notch poets!

3) Ogden Nash's Zoo with illustrations by Etienne Delessert, published in 1986.  This one is inferior, mostly because of Delessert's illustrations which feel much too stiff and serious for such light whimsical verse.  I still bought it just so I could have all of Nash's animal poems under one spine, but it's almost painful to read with these illustrations.

The shark poem on the right reads:
How many Scientists have written
The shark is gentle as a kitten?
Yet this I know about the shark:
His bite is worser than his bark.
Really???  That's the illustration you'd draw for that poem???  Or the illustrator you'd hire???  Ugh.

Anyway, as I have pointed out on this blog, I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about poetry when I started reading and writing it in 2008.  (Which is another thing: why don't schools teach poetry any more???)  I am having a lot of fun exploring this uncharted creative territory and each time I find a new poet whose work I admire, it feels like discovering buried treasure.  Onwards!

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Here's a limerick I wrote in May 2012.  I don't believe I've posted it yet....

To get downstairs I must pick
The ladder or stairs, one's more quick!
To avoid getting fatter
I'd best use the latter
I hope that the steps aren't too slick!

The idea to play with the words "ladder" and "latter" has been kicking around in my head for a long time.  I feel like this poem would be more successful with an illustration of someone at the top of some spiral steps, with a ladder going down the middle.

Someday I'd love to do an issue of Phase 7 with poems on the right-facing pages and illustrations on the left facing pages - like old humor books from the 50s.  That's why I write so many horrible limericks on this blog, to keep trying to get to a few good ones that can make the cut!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ogden Nash

I felt like writing a limerick this morning, so I did!  The subject is my favorite poet, who I tried my best to pay homage to in these five lines:

There once was a poet named Nash
Who traded in light verse for cash
A few in the Post
The New Yorker, most
For humor he had not a mash

Ha ha!  See what I did there?  I'm sure Mr. Nash is rolling over in his grave... oh well, it was fun!  I'm digging through my poetry notebook, I'll try to find some other stuff that I have yet to post.