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He Looked Again, And Found It Was . . .

A couple of days ago on this blog, Dora Malech wrote: “In poetry workshops and literature courses, I always emphasize poetic turns (not just in sonnets) and the pleasures and possibilities of poetic inconstancy (changing one’s mind, direction, or intentions). . . .” Back in late 2008 and early 2009, I became addicted to Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Gardener’s Song” stanza, a form that requires a change of direction at the stanza’s midpoint. I wrote forty or fifty stanzas myself, and I solicited a few dozen more from poet friends. Then we had a big reading and birthday bash for Carroll at Seattle’s Hugo House. Then I moved on to other things. (Clerihews, mostly.)

This summer I had a relapse. I’ve written a hundred or so “Mad Gardener’s Song” stanzas in the past several months; I may never stop. The form forces me to do things I want to do anyway: rhyme, tap my feet, surprise myself. In its most basic form, the stanza goes like this:

He thought he saw a BLAH blah BLAH
Blah BLAH blah BLAH blah BLAH:
He looked again, and found it was
Blah BLAH blah BLAH blah BLAH.
“Blah BLAH blah BLAH blah BLAH,” he said,
“Blah BLAH blah BLAH blah BLAH.”

So! All one has to do is fill in the blahs. Carroll’s version begins this way:

He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practiced on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
“At length I realize,” he said,
“The bitterness of Life!”

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister’s Husband’s Niece.
“Unless you leave this house,” he said,
“I’ll send for the Police!”

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
“The one thing I regret,” he said,
“Is that it cannot speak!”

These three stanzas, plus six others, appear fitfully in Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). The final stanza is my favorite:

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
“A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
“Extinguishes all hope!”

The fun, of course, in writing these stanzas is in coming up with a fourth line that’s as far removed from the first two lines as possible. My students wrote their own versions for workshop yesterday, pairing wonderfully unalike objects (for example: “Coruscant Knights / Who banished time and space” with “A Mean Girl’s Pencil Case”). Ostensibly, they were practicing how to write in iambic meter; but really, they were practicing how to think like poets. They were dwelling, to borrow Dora’s phrase, in “pleasures and possibilities.” Where better to spend one’s time?

Elephant, Fife