’Tis Pity Such a Pretty Maid As I Should Go to Hell

From the cover of the NYRB reissue of The Fire Horse.

1

I have just closed Isaac Watts’s once-famous book of children’s poetry, Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children. This book came out in 1715 and went through nobody-knows-how-many editions. Billions. Apparently there was a very long period during which it could reasonably be expected that any English-speaker could recite every one of these twenty-eight poems backward, under any conditions, including hanging upside-down drunk on two hits of acid.

Today, most people only know of the book’s existence because two of its pieces are parodied in Alice in Wonderland (Watts: “ ’Tis the voice of the sluggard … ” and “How doth the little busy bee … ” versus Carroll: “ ’Tis the voice of the lobster … ” and “How doth the little crocodile … ”). Modern readers usually assume Carroll is cocking a snoot at old Watts for being a moralistic, unfun and quadrilateral prig. It is, of course, possible that Carroll thought that, but I must say I doubt it. After all, Carroll was himself a supreme goody-goody, every bit as much as Watts. Read Carroll’s in-earnest poem on the first page of Alice (“From a Fairy to a Child”). Read his diary. 

Today, we are inclined to explain away the wild success of Divine Songs, because we believe we have in hand all the pertinent facts concerning children and their minds. Children, it is now known, delight in nonsense, noisemaking, pointlessness, and perversity. They do not wish to be taught anything. They relish, obscenely, rhythm and rhyme. They love the idea of making a b-i-i-i-i-i-g mess. They also “respond with deep satisfaction” to assurances that they are treasured and special. Others are muggles; they are magic.

Since all of the above is true, we can infer that poems about not swearing, about not fighting with one’s brothers and sisters, and about not wasting time can only be the soporific effusions of persons with ant farms up their asses. Prigs, in a word—who want to teach children to be prigs.

There’s just one problem. Children actually are prigs. They adore scolding one another. They adore pulling rank. And they adore the idea that they (unlike the brutish, unlike the neighbors, unlike the damned) know what is appropriate and what is not.

Watts spoke to this need, to this Passion of the Spirit—and so he was, for a hundred and fifty years at least, as popular as Dr. Seuss and J. K. Rowling combined. The key difference between Watts and his heirs in the art of writing for children is that Watts really did write for children directly. Literary artists had not yet risen to the task of dropping things in to amuse the wretches who are forced to read to the little droolers and mess-makers.

In this way, most children’s books today are like “bank shots” in pool. You tickle the parents, and the kids get pleasure by contagion. Watts was more direct. “Nine ball in the corner pocket”—and bang.

*

2

The prejudice against didacticism runs very deep in another book I’ve been reading: Russian Poetry for Children by Elena Sokol (University of Tennessee Press, 1984). This book, for all its flaws, is ridiculously useful, both as an overview and also as a quote book. Practically every page teems with quoted material in Romanized Russian—with the stresses marked (very convenient for a beginner like me)—and with practically word-for-word translations. These two factors alone are worth the price of admission.

However: I get impatient with Sokol a lot. She exemplifies our modern conventional certainty with regard to satisfying children’s tastes. She glows with admiration for writers so long as they stick to magical happenings and African animals, but is saddened and disappointed when, for example, Mayakovsky writes about work. (Sokol thinks kids exclusively like lollipops and nonsense—indeed, that’s what almost everybody thinks.)

Now let me take a moment to say explicitly: I myself write for children more or less constantly, and all my controls are set for magic and African animals, just like with everybody else. Also big messes. After all, I grew up on the Cat in the Hat and Sam-I-Am and the Grinch Who Stole Hanukkah—all of whom I revere. But I am also a trained literary person with a doctorate in English Literature, and so naturally I believe nothing is more subject to ideology than assessments regarding the Meaning of Childhood.

A book just came out this year that’s well worth a look—The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Mayakovsky + Mandelstam + Kharms, translated by a man I know slightly, Eugene Ostashevsky. This poet has given us a great deal of material relevant to any inquiry into children’s poetry of the Soviet period. He has translated the Oberiu poets and I don’t know whatall. This latest book is a special treat because it includes the original illustrations, in full color, of three works: Mayakovsky’s “The Fire Horse,” Mandelstam’s “Two Trams,” and Daniil Kharms’s “Play.” (The only thing the book is missing is the Russian. I should’ve liked to see the originals of these poems in an appendix, ideally with literal translations, just like in Sokol. A little poetry kit, why not.)

In translating this kind of thing, one does have to take liberties, there’s no way around that. In every culture, the belief is that children’s poetry has no right to exist unless it sounds fresh and spontaneous. That aspect of the work cannot be sacrificed. It’s the king on the chessboard.

So the big question should not be how close does Ostashevsky stick to his originals’ diction. Instead one should ask: Does he protect his king? I’ll try and give you just enough so you can judge.

The following is from the very beginning of Kharms’s “Igra” (“Play”—not as in “actors + stage” but as in that thing you do when you’re a kid). I’m copying this straight out of Sokol, page 135:

Begal Pét’ka po doróge, po doróge,
po panéli,
begal Pét’ka
po panéli
i krichál on:
—Ga-ra-rár!
Ia tepér’ uzhe ne Pét’ka,
razoidítes’!
Razoidítes’!
Ia tepér’ uzhe ne Pét’ka,
Ia tepér’ avtomobíl’.

[Along the street ran Petia, / along the street, / along the sidewalk; / Petia ran / along the sidewalk / and shouted: / “Vrr-oo-m! / I’m not Petia anymore, / clear the way! / Clear the way! / I’m not Petia anymore: / now I’m an automobile.”]

And here’s Ostashevsky:

Peter ran down the road,
down the road,
along the pavement,
Peter ran
along the pavement,
and he hollered
“Roo-roo-roo!
I’m not Peter any longer!
Everybody,
move aside!
I’m not Peter any longer!
I’m on wheels, I’m a car!”

I’ll quote a little more Ostashevsky in a minute. Sokol, meanwhile, is uneasy that the piece “introduces a certain cognitive element through its descriptions of automobile, train, and airplane.” She doesn’t like cognitive elements; however, she’s relieved to report that Kharms “does it imaginatively, depicting children behaving in ways they naturally do. He avoids static description—whatever knowledge of the surrounding world he communicates comes through the movement, involving children directly.”

Thirty pages later, Mayakovsky’s “Fire Horse” barely merits a mention:

“The Fire Horse” (“Kon’-ogon,” 1927), which traces the various types of labor involved in constructing a rocking horse, is a children’s version of the “production” literature encouraged, even demanded, by the proletarians at that time. Maiakovskii himself described his motivation for this poem. “Here I am taking advantage of the opportunity to explain to a child how many people must work to prepare such a horse…. In this way a child becomes acquainted with the collective nature of labor.”

The quote from Mayakovsky is adduced as if he were confessing that “Fire Horse” is not a real children’s poem. Yet, in Ostashevsky, it looks pretty good. This is from the middle of the piece, when the production of the horse is well under way:

Riding experts
have revealed
There’s no riding without the wheel.

They go to see the CARPENTER.
Of course he’s glad to encounter them.
He cuts a set of little WHEELS
Quickly,
smoothly,
true to scale.
They now have wheels but no mane,
No fibers for the tail.

A horsetail, where would we get it?
Same place as brush and bristle.
The BRISTLEMAN does not object—
To make the horse frizzle
He gives
HORSEHAIR
for the horse’s head
And some
for the horse’s other end.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book of poems is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.

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