The “new” Seuss book (due out tomorrow) is attracting a lot of notice — some of it, unfortunately, in verse. It is possible to write great ersatz Seuss. But it’s not easy. For faux Seuss, you must know Seuss. It helps, too, if you’re a poet.
Michiko Kakutani’s metrical mess offers an excellent caution to aspiring Seussifiers. Though doubtless intended as a fond tribute, it betrays little awareness of Seussian poetics or, for that matter, of poetry in general. Seuss typically wrote in anapestic tetrameter, sometimes introducing a pair of anapestic feet with an iamb. For those unfamiliar with these terms, an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable; tetrameter means that this pattern repeats four times in one line. If you need to hear an example in your head and cannot recall a Seuss lyric, then think of a limerick. Limericks typically use anapestic trimeter (three anapests per line) for the first, second, and fifth lines. Edward Lear is the limerick’s most famous purveyor, but the form strongly influenced Seuss’s work, too. Those anapests give Seuss’s verse its particular swing.
Kakutani‘s verse, on the other hand, has no regular metrical pattern. It seems to switch between iambs and anapests at random. And yet, I keep seeing her poem (I use the term “poem” loosely) described as “Seussian.” It isn’t.
Writing fake Seuss is a challenge, but not impossible. The late David Rakoff’s “Samsa and Seuss” does it brilliantly. It imagines an epistolary exchange between Gregor Samsa (of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) and Dr. Seuss. It aired on This American Life exactly three years ago, read by Jonathan Goldstein (as Samsa) and Rakoff (as Seuss). It runs 13 minutes. I’ve embedded the audio below. Or click here for a link to the whole show.
As you enjoy the new Seuss (or do not),
Remember that rhythm that can’t be forgot.
Anapestic’s the metric. It swings! And it sings!
It dances and shimmies. It gives words their wings.
If in versification you are not a leader,
You’ll be better off if you don’t mess with meter.
- If you’d like to read more about Seuss on this blog, there are plenty of other entries. Just follow the “Seuss” tag!
- Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015. Includes quotations from me.
- Alexandra Alter, “Dr. Seuss Book: Yes, They Found It in a Box,” New York Times, 22 July 2015.
- Michiko Kakutani, “Review: ‘What Pet Should I Get?,’ a New Book From Dr. Seuss,” New York Times Book Review, 20 July 2015.
- Karen Raugust, “The Enterprise Behind Dr. Seuss,” Publishers Weekly, 17 July 2015