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On Nursery Rhymes

Daniel Swift | May 11, 2018

The first poem I remember—really, it is the first poem I remember remembering—began:

In a dark park a tree barked
And a crocus croaked
I watched my watch…

At least, I think that was it, but I lost the book years ago, and I don’t know who wrote it. My father used to read this poem to me, when I was perhaps five or six. He read lots of other things to me, too: Tarka the Otter, by Henry Williamson, and Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” We liked that poem’s ending, with the cars sliding by like fish. But it’s the dark park and the croaking crocus I remember first and best.

Children’s poems are good for the basic disciplines of literature: rhyme and alliteration, thumping solid meter. These all combine in a single ambition, which is to make the poem memorable. In this, this particular poem has clearly succeeded: it has been remembered while all else has faded, the title and the poet and the book. Ezra Pound said that “the domain of culture begins when one has forgotten-which-book.” If that is true, then this is culture.

The book itself doesn’t matter, really, and nor does the author: and that is the point of nursery rhymes. They circulate in odd, casual ways—in anthologies, and in our memories. They are not copyrighted and cannot be, for everyone sort of knows them, and this freedom is in creative tension with their orderliness. Nursery rhymes are about discipline and release, or rules and the escape from those same rules. Try this, from “Mother Goose”:

Boys and girls
come out to play,
The moon doth shine
as bright as day.
Leave your supper
and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows
in the street.

The rhyme line in the first phrase (play / day) establishes a rule which is also a persuasion. Daytime is playtime, and surely, therefore, nighttime is for sleep; and surely, therefore, you should sleep, my child. And after all, what is a nursery rhyme for but to calm a wakeful child? But that’s not really what this poem is about, at all. The second phrase issues an invitation, to escape into the street. And here the rhyme’s discipline too is a little disordered: sleep / street. You can’t sleep in the street!

This sounds cold, but perhaps one of the great virtues of a nursery rhyme or a children’s story is efficiency: a kind of quickness in conveying a range of emotion. Try this phrase, from one of Russell Hoban’s stories about Tom and Captain Najork:

“Right,” said Captain Najork, clenching his teeth. “Muck next. Same sides.”

There’s a lovely brevity to this, and it has much to suggest about both masculinity and joy, and there’s also a risk here of sounding slightly stuffy and middle-aged as I even try to explain what I like so much about this. We say: Oh, but isn’t it interesting that the stuff for kids turns out to be so good? Almost as good as the stuff for grownups? I suspect this might be a category error.

I’ve written several books about grownup poetry, and at heart they are all about memory. My PhD was about how Shakespeare used and remembered a particular source, and how his audiences remembered it, too. My first book was about how we might use poetry to help us understand a half-forgotten historical episode, the bombing campaigns of the Second World War; my most recent book was about the impossibly contradictory figure of Ezra Pound, and how so many poets and writers who knew him remembered him in opposing, often contradictory ways. Perhaps this is just a way of saying that all literary criticism is bound up with acts of memory, or that poems are memory palaces: places where we put memories, technologies which help us to remember.

The technologies which assist memory have changed since the days my father read those poems to me, of course, and a few days ago I googled the lines I remembered, to find out where they were from. I was oddly pleased to find no trace of them on the internet, as if only the memory remained. I’ve been reading poems for children again, recently, and looking out for books for my newborn daughter. It turns out that the fourteen lines of a sonnet are the perfect length for a walk up and then down one flight of stairs with her over my right shoulder while I try to sway her into sleep.

Daniel Swift

Senior Lecturer in English