Poetry Wednesday: Lewis Carroll to the Rescue!

I was not prepared at all for today’s post.*

I’ve been honestly overwhelmed the past couple of days for all sorts of reasons, most of which tempted me to schlep my coconut shell away from the rest of the reef, climb in, and nail it shut from the inside. So it wasn’t until I finally finished editing chapter two of my WIP** around eleven last night, that I realized it was Tuesday and at that point the only poem I could bring to mind was a certain limerick featuring Nantucket.***

So I dragged out my poetry clipping file,^ dropped it on top of my laptop, and called it a day.

This morning—after shower, before caffeine—I opened the folder . . . and immediately found an old friend.

As I’ve indicated before, I’ve loved me some Lewis Carroll since before I learned the Snark was a Boojum. The one poem I wrote in college that I remember as not being execrable—safe enough, as I probably won’t ever see it again—was in homage to his Wonderland.

Plus, what could be more fitting than a poem about how (not)  to write poetry?


Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur
(Lewis Carroll)

“How shall I be a poet?
How shall I write in rhyme?
You told me once ‘the very wish
Partook of the sublime.’
The tell me how! Don’t put me off
With your ‘another time’!”

The old man smiled to see him,
To hear his sudden sally;
He liked the lad to speak his mind
And thought “There’s no hum-drum in him,
Nor any shilly-shally.”

“And would you be a poet
Before you’ve been to school?
Ah, well! I hardly thought you
So absolute a fool.
First learn to be spasmodic —
A very simple rule.

“For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.

‘Then, if you’d be impressive,
Remember what I say,
That abstract qualities begin
With capitals alway:
The True, the Good, the Beautiful —
Those are the things that pay!

“Next, when we are describing
A shape, or sound, or tint;
Don’t state the matter plainly,
But put it in a hint;
And learn to look at all things
With a sort of mental squint.”

“For instance, if I wished, Sir,
Of mutton-pies to tell,
Should I say ‘dreams of fleecy flocks
Pent in a wheaten cell’?”
“Why, yes,” the old man said: “that phrase
Would answer very well.

“Then fourthly, there are epithets
That suit with any word —
As well as Harvey’s Reading Sauce
With fish, or flesh, or bird —
Of these, ‘wild,’ ‘lonely,’ ‘weary,’ ‘strange,’
Are much to be preferred.”

“And will it do, O will it do
To take them in a lump —
As ‘the wild man went his weary way
To a strange and lonely pump’?”
“Nay, nay! You must not hastily
To such conclusions jump.

“Such epithets, like pepper,
Give zest to what you write;
And, if you strew them sparely,
They whet the appetite:
But if you lay them on too thick,
You spoil the matter quite!

“Last, as to the arrangement:
Your reader, you should show him,
Must take what information he
Can get, and look for no im
mature disclosure of the drift
And purpose of your poem.

“Therefore to test his patience —
How much he can endure —
Mention no places, names, or dates,
And evermore be sure
Throughout the poem to be found
Consistently obscure.

“First fix upon the limit
To which it shall extend:
Then fill it up with ‘Padding’
(Beg some of any friend)
You place towards the end.”

“And what is a Sensation,
Grandfather, tell me, pray?
I think I never heard the word
So used before to-day:
Be kind enough to mention one
‘Exempli gratiâ'”

And the old man, looking sadly
Across the garden-lawn,
Where here and there a dew-drop
Yet glittered in the dawn,
Said “Go to the Adelphi,
And see the ‘Colleen Bawn.’

“The word is due to Boucicault —
The theory is his,
Where Life becomes a Spasm,
And History a Whiz:
If that is not Sensation,
I don’t know what it is,

“Now try your hand, ere Fancy
Have lost its present glow –”
“And then,” his grandson added,
“We’ll publish it, you know:
Green cloth — gold-lettered at the back —
In duodecimo!”

Then proudly smiled that old man
To see the eager lad
Rush madly for his pen and ink
And for his blotting-pad —
But, when he thought of publishing,
His face grew stern and sad.

I should wing Wednesdays more often . . .

Okay, show of hands: how many of you practiced pronouncing “Enthusiastically” until it scanned and rhymed—and grinned as you did it? The brilliance of the man’s wordplay—and play it was—cannot be denied.

And the whole poem is even better when you remember—or, google, yes, hush—that poeta nascitur, non fit means a poet is born, not made.  Kind of throws the whole poem in reverse all by itself, doesn’t it?


* To those of you who are surprised that this is news, I offer a hearty raspberry and a brief quotation from the Fifth Amendment. You know the one.

** Until the next draft, anyway . . . And if you thought you detected some invisible and highly graphic language in front of most of the nouns and a verbs in the sentence this footnote belongs to, you’re right.

*** And I’m saving that one for another poetry contest.  Stay tuned.

^ What, doesn’t everybody?


18 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Lewis Carroll to the Rescue!

      • Some of it is close, Sarah….”show don’t tell”…some of it is not…”be obscure.” I have been told countless times to not be so obscure. Perhaps that is Carroll’s satirical wit at work, he was the master of the obscure. The mental squint is an interesting image, as Lyra says. Perhaps useful…How true the sensation at the end, which is a let down for any writer, particularly poets…publishing. Thanks for sharing this.

        • It’s strange, isn’t it, how publication isn’t quite what it’s assumed to be? Or so I hear . . .

          “Master of the Obscure.” I’m stealing that for a blog title!

  1. “With a sort of mental squint”. Mental squint, mental squint, mental squint.

    There is something so wonderful about that image. After repeating it, I also really enjoy how the two words hang out directly behind the front teeth.

    I plan on giving people mental squints all day long.

  2. Yay! I share something in common with the great Lewis Caroll. You see, when I think of publishing, I grow stern and sad, too. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

  3. Love, love, LOVE Lewis Carroll. At a weekend away with some friends in June, someone made me recite “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” as well as Roald Dahl’s “Goldie Pinklesweet.” I memorized them both back in high school, and it was no easy feat trying to fake my way through them thirtysomething years later. Fortunately, we’d all had a few drinks, so no one noticed my omission of entire stanzas.

    That man had one hell of an imagination and worked pure magic with words.

    • He did, indeed.

      Hey, how does this sound, Sherry: When we manage to meet face to face, I’ll do Ben Jonson’s “Ode to the Belly” if you do “Walrus and the Carpenter.” What do you say?

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