Friday, June 24, 2016

Poetry Friday: Playing with Mother Goose

Mother Goose illustrated by Jesse Wilcox Smith
I've always found Mother Goose a perfect beginning point for anyone wanting to learn about writing poetry, and I don't just mean writing poetry for kids. One of my professors at the University of Washington, Rick Kenney, directed me toward Mother Goose rhymes - for their musicality, their memorability, and for their weird and wonderful and nonsensical content.

Mother Goose illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright
Later, as a creative writing teacher myself, I asked my students to write "new" Mother Goose rhymes, paying attention to the traditional sound a Mother Goose rhyme makes (often a jump-rope rhythm, with bizarre little tweeks and twists) but with modern content. What resulted were some of the best poems written by those students in any given semester.

Mother Goose - Artist Unknown
So today, in honor of Poetry Friday, I'm offering up another poem that takes Mother Goose as the baseline and plays with it in a slightly different way, abandoning the rhythms but focusing on the content and turning it inside out, or maybe pushing it sideways. I recognize Humpty Dumpty, Little Nanny Etticot, Three Blind Mice, and Rock-a-Bye Baby, but what is the poet saying about them?   Full confession: I don't know what the poet is saying  - it's as if a Mother Goose rhyme had been turned into a modern riddle. Or as if the nonsensical nature could be imported to a poem for adults that is equally nonsensical. I need to study it more.

Mother Goose - Artist Unknown
But I love how a nursery rhyme (or, in this case, several nursery rhymes) can become the subject of a serious poem, and I challenge anyone reading The Drift Record this week to try their hand at one of two things: 1) writing a modern Mother Goose rhyme, with jump rope rhythms but modern content or 2) taking an existing Mother Goose rhyme, sticking with the characters and the storyline of a rhyme but stranging it up, turning it inside out, going a little surreal with it. If you can't figure out your own poem, so much the better! Think of it as a riddle. You might just have said something that will surprise you, which is always a pleasure when writing, no? 

Mother Goose illustrated by Rosemary Wells

Here is Josephine Jacobsen's poem (from her book In the Crevice of Time) - and if you want to learn more about this wonderful poet, you can read many of her poems over at Poetry Explorer, and you can read my essay about her over at Numero Cinq magazine by clicking here.

The Primer

                      I said in my youth
“they lie to children”
but it is not so.
Mother my goose I know
told me the truth.

I remember that treetop minute.
That was a baby is a woman now;
in a rough wind, it was a broken bough
brought down the cradle with the baby in it.

I had a dumpy friend (you would not know his name
though he indeed had several), after his fall
lay in live pieces by my garden wall
in a vain tide of epaulets and manes.

I had another friend (and you would know her name),
took up her candle on her way to bed.
She had a steady hand and a yellow head
up the tall stairway, but the chopper came.

So small they meant to run away, from sightless eyes
three mice ran toward my mind instead;
I seized the shapely knife. They fled
in scarlet haste, the blind and tailless mice.

Cock robin was three birds of a single feather.
Three times cock robin fell when a breeze blew;
eye of fly watched; arrow of sparrow flew:
three times cock robin died in the same weather.

                                                --Josephine Jacobsen

You can check out what other people have posted this week over at Diane Mayr's wonderful blog, Random Noodling.  And let's all shout hooray: It's summer, the season of full belief. Time for raspberries, ripe peaches, Rainier cherries. Time to run through some sprinklers. Time to be a little lazy in the noonday sun. And in the noonday shade. 


  1. When I was a children's librarian I was amazed at how few children knew nursery rhymes. And a dozen years later, I'm sure the number is even smaller. A sad state of affairs.

    When my kids were babies we read Blanche Fisher Wright's The Real Mother Goose. One of my favorites was a rhyme that made absolutely no sense, but was so very musical.

    There was an old woman tossed in a basket,
    Seventeen times as high as the moon;
    But where she was going no mortal could tell,
    For under her arm she carried a broom.

    "Old woman, old woman, old woman,"said I,
    "Whither, oh whither, oh whither so high?"
    "To sweep the cobwebs from the sky;
    And I'll be with you by-and-by."

    1. I've always loved that one, Diane! Maybe it's those triples of "old woman" and "whither"? Or maybe it's the unexpected practical use of the broom (to sweep those cobwebs!)?

  2. I do try to read Mother Goose to my grand-girls, but they are unfamiliar to them. They do love the new "Lullaby & Kisses Sweet" poems. They know lots of songs, a good thing, but their parents don't read those old rhymes to them. Interesting challenge, Julie. I'll see if I can find time to try one.

    1. Father Fox's Pennyrhymes is a wonderful book, too, for kids, and a little less weird than Mother Goose. I know that a lot of kids aren't getting Mother Goose rhymes aloud grandson doesn't know many. Sad!

  3. I made sure my kids read Mother Goose. They are part of our culture. Who doesn't know Jack Sprat and his wife? Or the five piggies? I wrote a poem recently updating the five piggies.

  4. Appreciations for sharing this intriguing poem. And for introducing me to a new poet.

    Your Opie cover reminds me that the Opie's history of nursery rhymes & others' books & articles on them reveal about how the originals, before editing for modern circulation, were more gruesome, odd & inscrutable. Perhaps she is honoring that heritage.

    1. I agree - Jacobsen is using the bafflement we felt as kids - for me, it's the same appealing idea of letting go of the sense of it in favor of the nonsense.

  5. Over the years as a reading specialist and districtwide director, I found that elementary children don't come to school with knowledge of nursery rhymes so I suggested to the teachers to introduce that genre to their students. Thanks for bringing light to the subject, Julie.

    1. Isn't that sad, Carol? No frame of reference that includes nursery rhymes? Impossible!

  6. "Surreal" is a good way to describe Jacobsen's poem. It's interesting how such familiar characters and images can become so mysterious and other-worldly.

    1. Yes, I wasn't kidding when I said I couldn't make sense of her poem - though maybe that is what the BEST nonsense does. Makes you feel like you could understand it if you just tried a little bit harder..?

  7. Our music teacher had the fifth graders rewrite Mother Goose rhymes and then compose music to go with them. We spent some time in homeroom remembering/hearing the rhymes for the first time. My ELL students were particularly baffled by some of the goofiest rhymes!!

  8. Mary Lee, I didn't know you worked with ELL students. I have a theory that everyone who wants to be a poet should teach English to students who have a different mother tongue. Doing so helps us hear English in a fresh way & share in the wonder of it, don't you think?