Friday, September 17, 2010

James Thurber -- Rhyming Humorist

Who is my favourite American Rhyming Humorist? Well there are obvious choices, Ogden Nash, Dr Seuss, Phyllis McGinley, Shel Silverstein, Dorothy Parker… But what about James Thurber?

That’s correct Mr Thurber, creator of Walter Mitty and Mr Preble… But a rhyming humorist? Well if you read any biography of James Thurber (Such as here or here) the word poet is not mentioned in his description, but recently I have had the enormous pleasure of reading two of his children’s books, ‘The Wonderful O’ and ‘The 13 Clocks’. Both books suddenly break into metrical rhyming sections at sporadic intervals. It can confuse at times, as the sections are not lineated as you would normally associate with poetry, the words are as Roger McGough wrote in his wonderful autobiography, ‘Words out of control, falling over a cliff’, and many times I had to read a section again as I realised I had missed one the fact that it rhymes.

Take for example this section from the Wonderful O, about building a better man: (Lineation mine)

“Of firmer flesh and all complete,
From Hairy head to metatarsal feet,
Using A’s and I’s and U’s and E’s
With muscular arms and flexible knees;
Eyes and ears and lids and lips,
Neck and chest and breast and hips;
Liver, heart and lungs and chin,
Nerves and ligaments and skin;
Kidney’s, pancreas and flanks,
Ankles calves and skin and shanks.
Legs and lashes, ribs and spleen—‘
Black had turned a little green,
And then Hyde held up both his hands
“Brains and veins and cells and glands—“

He is then silenced and it descends into non-rhyming prose, until Mr Thurber decides he is going to rhyme again…

I found both these books wonderfully inventive, linguistically fruitful, terrifically moral and exceptionally humorous… They would be strongly recommended.

Although in answer to my initial question, the answer would still be Ogden Nash… Although I loved Thurber’s work before I read these books and I like his work a little more now…

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