19 December 2008

Cormorants, the Slithergadee and Hiawatha

My daughter K is currently in 8th grade. Last week she brought home an assignment for language arts: Get a poetry book from the library, read the whole thing, pick three poems to write a short essay about, memorise one of them (of at least eight lines), and recite it for the class.

Digression: The only time I recall having to learn a poem for school was in 6th grade. I chose "The Walloping Window Blind," by Charles Edward Carryl (1841-1920). You can find it here.

My wife's first suggestion was that K finish memorising "The Gashleycrumb Tinies," by Edward Gorey (which I've mentioned before), though she wasn't sure what the teacher would think of that particular poem. My own first suggestion was "The Common Cormorant," by Christopher Isherwood (1906-1986):
"The Common Cormorant"
Christopher Isherwood

The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason you will see no doubt:
It is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

Digression: One subject that comes up from time to time on the kidlit blogs is Out-of-Print Books That Need to be Reprinted. One book I would place high on the list is A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me, by Wallace Tripp. It's a wonderful collection of poems - mostly of the nonsensical variety - with incredible illustrations by the author. That book was where I first found the Isherwood poem above.

K suggested getting Where the Sidewalk Ends, or another book by Shel Silverstein (1930-1999). This immediately brought to mind the only Silverstein poem I know:
"The Slithergadee"
Shel Silverstein

The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.
He may catch all the others, but he won’t catch me.
No you won’t catch me, old Slithergadee,
You may catch all the others, but you wo–

I first came across "The Slithergadee" (which, if I remember correctly, was also included in Great Big Ugly Man) back in the '60s, on a Smothers Brothers album. Thinking of them reminded me of their song about Hiawatha. ("Hiawatha, he went hunting/Went to hunt a bunny rabbit./Had to make a pair of mittens/from the bunny rabbit fur.") Somewhat to my surprise, a Google search failed to turn up the words to the song*, but I did find this poem, by the Rev George A Strong (1832-1912), which was obviously the basis therefor.
"The Modern Hiawatha"
George A Strong

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside.
He, to get the cold side outside,
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That's why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

The site where I found this poem also included a link to another good Hiawatha parody: "Hiawatha's Photographing," by none other than Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). I won't give you that one in its entirety, as it's a bit longish (though nowhere near as long as the original), but I will give you the first two stanzas and a link to the full poem.
"Hiawatha's Photographing"
Lewis Carroll

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

This he perched upon a tripod -
Crouched beneath its dusky cover -
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence -
Said "Be motionless, I beg you!"
Mystic, awful was the process.

Unable to determine where/when "The Common Cormorant" was first published.
"The Slithergadee," from Don't Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies, by Shel Silverstein, 1963.
"Hiawatha's Photographing," from Rhyme? and Reason?, by Lewis Carroll, 1887.
Poems used without permission.

No, it's not an Xmas poem. I hate Xmas. Passionately. I did, however, post one a couple years ago, though, so you can go (re)read it if you want - it's a reminder that Xmas is a little different for some folks.

Oh, yes - the homework assignment. She memorised "For Sale," from Where the Sidewalk Ends. (Several other kids picked Silverstein poems, but no-one else chose that particular one.)

* Though I did learn that it was on the same album that included "The Slithery Dee" (their version of "The Slithergadee").

Click on the "Poetry Friday" button at left for this week's round-up, which is hosted by Laura at Author Amok. (Susan, of Susan Writes, has done a round-up of previous round-ups here.)

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