This may be my favorite children's book of all time. I know there's a lot of grousing and bitching about the ecological message, and that's fine, you're welcome to it, but that's not why I love this book. Back when the the world was young and dewy, when my soul was uncorrupted and my fervency unqualified, I took a lot of classes on the subject of prosody, which is the boring technical end of poetry. One of the arguments a person of this background can have, her beret at a jaunty angle, her eyes blazing with the electricity of certainty, is whether the basic meter of the English language is pentameter or tetrameter.
This is silly, I can admit now, but just barely. Probably there is no basic metrics of the English language, only fumbling and stumbling from one poorly disclosed experience to the next. Probably it's a jumble of different stress patterns expressing different needs, and while the tetrameter may show up a lot in poetry aimed at children, it doesn't make it the basic unit, just the basic unit of instruction. But then there's this:
At the far end of town
where the Grickle-grass grows
and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows
and no birds ever sing excepting old crows...
is the Street of the Lifted Lorax
Let me translate this into metric notation, just to see if I can:
- - ' - - '
- - ' - - '
- - ' - ' - ' - - '
- - ' - - ' - ' - - '
- - ' - - ' - ' -
(The dashes note unstressed syllables, the apostrophes stressed. There continues to be something wrong with scansion, as this is called, as it loses the subtleties of the way these lines are actually spoken, but it's all we've got until someone keener than I devises a new notation. We're still using scansion developed by the ancient Greeks, and while those toga-cats were certainly big with the smart, they were speaking Ancient Greek, and Modern English doesn't do short/long so much as stressed/unstressed, and it seems crazy to me to equate the two. Crazy! Gerard Manley Hopkins
did, to more or less freaking brilliant results, but there's only one Hopkins, and then there's the rest of us mumblers.)
Despite the caesura in the first line that Suess indicates by a line-break, this is a four-line stanza in tetrameter, heartbreaking in its languid anapests and that final, terminal un-rhyme and lost stress. (I'd also like to take a moment to freak out about the fact that there's a caesura at all. Modern English is a shotgun marriage between Germanic and Romance languages, and the caesura is a basic component in the alliterative verse that was the norm in English poetry until the Normans invaded with rhyme, bless their hearts. Suess's intermittent alliterations allude to an older form that aligns beginnings and not endings.) The Lorax is a tale of longing and nostalgia, starting in the dreary present and then re-tracing the action that lead from a brighter-then to a darker-now. There are gestures towards a brighter-tomorrow, but they are gestures.
“But Ceridwen!” I can hear you shout, “You've called anapests heartbreaking! There's no freaking way I can let that slide!” And you're totally right, anapests – that metric foot that is made up of two unaccented syllables followed by an accent – a sort of long form iamb, if you will – has been more associated with comedy than heartbreak. The form with which it is most closely associated, in English, is the limerick.
There once was a man from Nantucket - ' - - ' - - ' -
Whose dick was so long he could suck it - ' - - ' - - ' -
Once, in my silly prosodic days, I had a semester long argument with another student about whether there could ever be a serious limerick. I pissed him off so badly with my exclamations that there could never ever be such an animal that he made it the subject of his final paper, and duly dug up a series of limericks – I shit you not – about the Holocaust. However, these limericks were originally written as song lyrics, and I refused to allow them into evidence. This guy totally wanted to kill me by the end of class, I tell you what. (Another thing I will fight you about until the end of the universe is whether song lyrics are poetry. When I say they are not, which I do most emphatically, I don't mean that they are lesser order beings or any of the other rot other song-lyrics-as-poetry deniers go on about. I simply mean they are a different form altogether, subject to their own conventions and restrictions. Of course there is overlap and gray areas, like between the novel and the short story, but like the novel and the short story, they are still different things. Also, in a daring act of hypocrisy, I wrote my own term paper on the prosody of rap music, although my intent was to quote as many permutations of the word “fuck” as humanly possible. What can I say? I'm immature.)
So now that I've totally dissed song lyrics as not-poetry, I'm going to use them to bolster my argument, because that's the kind of jackhole I am. I watched The Music Man
last night, and main thing that struck me was all the not-so-subtly coded sexuality. The other thing that struck me, the thing that has anything to do with the point I'm trying to make, was how the two songs Seventy Six Trombones
and Goodbye My Someone
use the same tune to entirely different ends: one is a march, the other a treacly love song. Slowed down, the anapest from the limerick becomes the anapest of the waltz. To switch musical metaphors again, The Lorax
is like a sad song in a major key, like “Ashokan Farewell"
(also a waltz!) and these kinds of songs just absolutely slay me. (See also: “You are my Sunshine”)
The boy in The Lorax
is not the usual Dr. Suess hero; instead of inventing, discovering or describing the world around and in him, he sits and listens to a tale of loss. (I suppose this is like the boy in The Butter Battle Book
, which also has an overt message, but I think that book kind of sucks.) Suess's stories almost always chart the progress of a motherless child through the dizzying world. These children have no families, no hometowns, often no homes. They appear fully formed but blank and tootle into their bildungsromans. But often, these aren't true stories of transition to adulthood, but elaborate flights of fancy or lists of wonders, often natural in origin, that the child imagines to be waiting for him in the world at large. The Lorax
turns this usual exuberant Suessian potential on its ear, the natural world run from glorious potential into destructive industrialism.
This is the thing that kills me about The Lorax
: I want a Thneed so bad I can taste it. I mean, something that can be a sock, shirt, glove, hat, carpet, pillow, sheet, curtain or bicycle seat? Where do I sign? The Once-ler's great invention occupies this weird space. Suess has always been the master of the complicated, Rube Goldberg-like device, but he more or less outdoes himself here, crossing a sketch of a knitted bagpipe with a description so vague and inclusive that the Thneed ends up encompassing the potential of most Suess narratives. Part of the joy of replanting the Truffula forest comes from the slightly sick but attractive notion of knitting some more Thneeds, which is why this book rules the school. From the last page:
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.