Alligator, alligator, Swimming in the Nile. What makes you different To a crocodile?
Well now, this was a nice quick hit on the first day of zoo-rhyme writing, but the doubt set in almost immediately. Is it to a crocodile, or from a crocodile? Do alligators actually swim in the Nile or are they in fact crocodiles? How would I know? What, in fact, is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? Are they actually the same thing, like Bison and Buffalo – if, in fact, they are the same thing. I think you begin to get the picture that my zoological knowledge is not extensive. Time for some research…
So, it is just as well I made the point, which I reiterate at this juncture, that these are nonsense rhymes, as there are, in fact, no alligators swimming in the Nile. If there were, they would almost certainly be eaten by the Nile Crocodiles, which are very big and very bad indeed. I decided to check up on the difference between the two, to ensure that I didn’t make the same mistake again, and I discovered that the main way of identifying one from t’other is in the crocodile’s characteristic toothy grin. I was not certain that, in the field, this would help me. Nevertheless, I tried to clarify…
Crocodile, crocodile, swimming in the Nile, I’m not reassured by your big friendly smile, Resulting from evolutionary law, That the biggest and strongest give others ‘what for’. So two ancient hunters, but only one winner: The croc’ is the diner, the ‘gator the dinner.
The days have grown long
And the winter is finished
I love you in Spring
Now your rash has diminished.
So, it started when I attempted to write something romantic to put inside a Valentine’s card for my wife. These things seldom go to plan, do they? Anyway, it occurred to me that even the great poets must have suffered the same anguish when attempting to construct the early drafts of their own declarations of love. So, I did a little digging around and this is what I found. Consider, for instance, the difficulties faced by Robert Burns when he first attempted to express his devotion…
A Red, Red Nose
O my Luve is like a red, red nose
That’s newly sprung a leak.
O my Luve is like the melody
That only tone-deaf seek.
So fair thy skin, so red thy lips
So bloodshot is your eye
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
When the bar is all drunk dry.
And O my throat is parched, my dear.
Behold my empty glass.
Just go and fill it up with beer;
Be quick my bonnie lass.
Then fare thee weel, my only luve!
Our farewell stays unspoken,
For I will come again, my luve,
When the barman has awoken.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning attempted to get this sonnet right on so many occasions that, eventually, she began to number them…
How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love some things about you, but I might need to think.
I would write them all down, but I can’t spare the ink
And I cannot buy more until somebody pays.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Flossing of teeth and washing of socks.
I could love thee more if you bought me some chocs.
I love thee madly when I wake in a daze.
I love thee the most with the help of some booze
When my vision is blurred and I can’t see your vest.
Though I don’t love the way that thy dentures are loose
And, if I’m quite honest, your skin’s not the best.
I don’t love your pimples and pussy-nosed ooze.
In fact, if I’m honest, I think you’re a pest.
John Keats, also, did not find that his first drafts always went to plan…
You say you love; but with a voice
You say you love; but with a voice
Chaster than a nun in wimple
To God she promises herself
And not some oik with pimples –
Oh love me Julie!
You say you love; but with a sneer
That positively smoulders,
With nought but pure indifference,
For you have two cold shoulders –
Oh love me Julie!
You say you love; but then your lips
Are pursed, clenched tight like mother.
More than ever kissing mine,
You’d sooner kiss my brother –
Oh love me Julie!
You say you love; but then your hand
No pleading cheek doth grazeth
And, in the stead of soft embrace,
Two fingers it doth raiseth –
Oh love me Julie!
Oh sweet insanity of love,
Although your words can injure,
The pain they cause cannot compare –
Your punch is like a Ninja.
Oh, love me Julie!
Even Shakespeare didn’t always get it right first time…
Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And rattle the hinges of the gate.
Sometimes the clouds of steely grey
Are blown across the skies of blue
And it pisses down the length of day
And that’s when I most think of you.
You are, by nature, full of gloom,
That even sunshine cannot lift:
You fill me with a sense of doom
That even Dairy Milk can’t shift.
Dejected I know I shall be
As long as you are here with me.
But they all persevered and, of course, got it right eventually. I fear I may not do the same…
Roses are red
And delicately scented
I don’t know what I saw in you
Quite frankly, you’re demented.
One thing I learned during the course of writing this piece was that there are some poems you just cannot mess about with. I realised that ‘That I Did Always Love’ (Dickinson); ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ (Betjeman) and ‘Love’s Philosophy’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley) are all untouchable. That I did not even discover the latter poem until I was researching for this piece, probably tells you all you need to know about me…
With abject apologies to Robert Burns, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Keats and William Shakespeare
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea; And love is a thing that can never go wrong; And I am Marie of Roumania Dorothy Parker
A little while ago, at the end of ‘An Apology from the Man in the Red Plastic Nose’ I included a limerick that I had just written, simply because it included the word ‘nose’…
A man with a plasticine nose Tried to model it into a rose. He practised until he Produced a red lily, Which is almost the same I suppose.
It seemed harmless enough, and I enjoyed writing it, so I decided to write some more. You know what it’s like – you have to set yourself challenges now and then. Worryingly they came quite easily for a while and then, quite suddenly, they didn’t come at all, and that is when I become desperate to write another one. The first four lines are easy, but the punch line… oh dear, after a while it becomes increasingly difficult to get. I have so many four-fifths (80% if we’re still in the EU) finished limericks that I keep revisiting: constantly adding a finale that either doesn’t quite rhyme or doesn’t quite scan. They torment me. I have even thought of simply re-running the first line at the end (like Mr Lear himself) just so I could file them in the bin under ‘Utter Tripe’ and not be faced with their incompleteness every time I sit at my desk. Limericks are infuriatingly elusive: they pop into your head complete, but lose a line somewhere along the way, before you have the opportunity to commit them to paper. One of my greatest heroes, Sir Michael of the Palin once wrote a book that contained 100 limericks, and I seem to remember him saying something along the lines of 90 of them just popped into his head whilst the other 10 almost killed him. Anyway, as some kind of salutary lesson, I picked out one-a-day from a week’s worth of limerick writing (I’ll be honest here, three came from the same day and my best days for rhyme were whilst I was blog writing – go figure) – the salutary lesson is that these are the best ones, the ones that made the most sense. The others? Oh dear… It just goes to show what you can fail to achieve if you really have no better way of spending your time…
There was a young fella from Looe Who would never remove his left shoe. When asked why it was, He’d reply ‘It’s because It’s fixed to my instep with glue.’
Now, limericks do, obviously, follow a fairly strict format, but I did try to vary my approach a bit…
A brainy young boy, known as Peter Was a very good crossword completer When asked ‘Is it true That you don’t read a clue?’ He replied ‘Well I find it much neater.’
…but before too long my brain became an atlas filled with all the places from which an elderly man or woman could possible come…
An elderly man from Cresselly Was addicted to soaps on the telly He wallowed in doom And monotonous gloom Whilst his brain slowly rendered to jelly
At one point the rhymes became quite inward looking…
There was a young man known as Stan Whose limericks never would scan On a page full of scribbles He played with syllables Before ending back where he began
I even tried to make them contemporary and relevant: not easy with a limerick…
A woman from Leamington Spa Took the engine block out of her car And put there instead A vegetable bed Which was very much cleaner by far
Sometimes it was lines three and four that gave me the trouble…
The brains of a woman called Page Ensured that she stood centre stage But still her employer Would only deploy her At less than a working man’s wage
I became very aware of pronunciation: my whole day’s endeavours could hinge on whether a word like camera is pronounced as a two syllable or a three syllable word. As a man who is both consumed and beguiled by words, I was concerned that I was becoming obsessed by them. For instance, I just couldn’t finish
There was an old woman from Slough Whose skin was incredibly rough…
(I have a horrible feeling that you have to be from the UK to get that joke… and possibly this one too)
An elderly woman called Madge Built a rocket from what she could cadge From sticky-back plastic And knicker elastic ‘Til it earned her a Blue Peter badge.
But the simply silly were never far around the corner…
There was a young vampire from Ealing Who just hung around from the ceiling He wouldn’t drink blood Though he knew that he should, But he just didn’t find it appealing.
And that was it, I wrote that this morning and decided that I’d had enough. Limericks began to dominate my every thought. But then, this last five liner came into my head and, just as I prepared to post it, it turned out to be a ten liner…
An old man who counted out time And spoke of his life in its prime Had discovered a curse In this short form of verse When he just couldn’t quite make it rhyme
When he stared at the page it occurred That it really was simply absurd To be so at sea Etymologically That he just couldn’t find the right word.
So there you are. Limericks; not really poetry, except in the broadest of senses, but they are fun and strangely demanding to write.
And just so you don’t feel left out, this is one of the ones that I just couldn’t finish. I’m sure you will be able to do it…
There was a young fellow called Jim Who had extra of ev-e-ry limb If he wanted a place In the three-legged race
When I was eleven, I went to grammar school. Until that point, I believed that culture was something you found between a five-year old’s toes. At school they tried to knock some culture into my thick old head, but we were never comfortable bed-fellows, culture and I. I enjoyed some Shakespeare, but seldom until I had seen it acted. On the page it was just a beautiful sounding nonsense. I was introduced to some novels that I love to this day and others that I hated instantly. I learned quite quickly that if I didn’t like a novel within a couple of pages, then I might as well give up there and then. We were never going anywhere, book and I.
And then I was introduced to poetry. We have a chequered history, poetry and I. It makes me feel stupid when I don’t understand it and soulless when I don’t enjoy it. Sometimes I only have to look at it and my eyes start to swim. Sometimes it takes a language that I understand and contorts it into something that makes as much sense to me as Swahili. I have discovered, however, as I get older, that there are poets and poems that I love and, I am always open to discovering more. I have read new poetry on this platform and been both moved and amused by it. I have been sneaking an odd poem or two of my own into this blog, as something of an added extra (like a boil on the end of your nose when you’ve already got the flu) and this is just another one.
I think that some people enjoy them – and that really takes some understanding…
An Appreciation of Poetry
The gilded art of polished phrase
That punctuated schoolboy days
Where words of love and joy and rage
Lay lifeless on each dog-eared page
Majestic lines so flatly read
Drummed into every schoolboy head
And arch displays of erudition
Locked in brains by repetition
Where verses raised in cool élan
Are lost to empty rhyme and scan
Forget the words, but keep instead
The rhythm sounding in your head
Observe the faithful paradigm
The rumty-tum of metred rhyme
That void of all emotion drips
Unthinkingly from idle lips
And then recall a line or two
Of the poem writ by you-know-who
That told a tale of daffodils
And wand’ring over lonely hills
Who said we should Stop All the Clocks?
And what on earth are Jabberwocks?
Why do I smile when I stumble upon
A Subaltern’s love for J. Hunter Dunn?
‘Come [something] bombs and fall on Slough’
(I must recall that word somehow)
And memorise a verse from Pope
Now… who had feathers – was it Hope?
Though I know the lines and it sounds absurd All I ever learned was a string of words. My mind is full of couplets I can only half recall, Which maybe makes them monoplets – if they’re anything at all.
P.S. ‘Hope’ (by Emily Dickinson) is the thing with feathers.