- Disorder and Security in Nonsense Verse for Children
Not long ago, Nancy Larrick, an anthologist with the wise policy of first trying out poems on live children, recalled an experience that I believe tells us much about children's taste. Speaking before a workshop at the ALA convention in Dallas, in June 1989, she recalled that, while assembling her anthology Piper, Pipe that Song Again! (1965), she had offered a variety of poems to groups of urban second- and third-graders. These young critics liked poems that stirred their feelings, especially "poems in which something happens." And to her surprise Larrick soon found that lively poems about play failed to engage her audience as she had anticipated. The youngsters much preferred poems that were full of unexpected action. They loved to hear of things flying wildly out of control—how Daddy slipped and fell in the pond. Now that was better than a poem about skipping rope or playing ball, any day.
Children, those I have known, enjoy accounts of ordinary life dissolving into chaos, of adults (especially parents) who in the face of overwhelming trouble prove helpless, incompetent, and ridiculous. Small fry relish such disorder, I suspect, as long as they know it is all in fun, that no character in the poem is in any danger, that peace and harmony will triumph in the end. To bolster these hunches, let me cite a few nonsense poems for children, drawn from two familiar anthologies, The Scott, Foresman Anthology of Children's Literature (SF) and The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (RH), and (just because it supplies convenient homemade examples) my collection Ghastlies, Goops & Pincushions (GGP). (Items not attributed to another writer will be mine.)
A fertile source of laughter for children is the familiar situation taken from daily life and carried to an extreme—turned into a tall tale. In "Mummy Slept Late and Daddy Fixed Breakfast" (which poem children polled by the NCTE once declared to be their all-time favorite), poet John Ciardi begins with a familiar domestic situation, but quickly shoves it over the edge of possibility. Daddy serves the children a waffle absolutely impervious to human tools: it causes a fork to bend, it resists hacksaw and blowtorch (SF 86, also RH 147). Now evidently this is all more innocuous fun: the monstrous waffle, being totally inedible, poses [End Page 28] no threat to anyone. The entire yarn is a joke, with Father the butt of it. Or consider Shel Silverstein's "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out," in which the antiheroine ignores her parent's pleas to be a good girl and do her duty. Shrewdly, Silverstein appeals to every child's disinclination to trot obediently to the garbage pail with the night's consignment, but he carries the consequences of this refusal to epidemic proportions. The garbage piles higher and higher until it spans the continent. The poet implies, but doesn't actually state, that poor Sarah drowns under it (S-L 115). Is the child reader shocked and dismayed by Sarah's fate? Not in the least. Who doesn't know that nobody drowns from not taking out the garbage?
From a familiar, everyday happening to a bizarre one is but a babystep, easy for a writer to take. Just begin with a perfectly usual event—a stuck car horn—and you can readily carry it to an extreme: by having firemen spray the vehicle with foam, so that the children must "ride to school inside / A gooey white marshmallow" ("The Horn on Our Pickup Truck Stayed Stuck," GGP 20). Riding inside a marshmallow may be silly, but it is also enjoyed and non-threatening: chaos has ended in fun. In "Trouble with Baby" (GGP 22), a mother does not merely learn karate herself, she goes a step further and teaches it to her infant—with the result that Baby starts breaking up the household, destroying his pottychair and trashing the television set besides. Again, I feel sure that not a bit of this wild action will strike children as menacing. No members of this fictive family suffer any damage—only their...