For this month, we are writing poems in the style of Theodore Geisel – better known as Dr. Seuss. Is he a poet? We certainly think of him as a children’s book author and we know he uses rhyme, but few people think of his books as poems. If you take a look at one of his books in its entirety, using his line breaks, it certainly looks and sounds like a poem. Take a look at Oh, The Places You’ll Go as one poem.
Dr. Seuss came into being partly because of a 1950s report on illiteracy among American school children called “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” That report placed part of the blame on boring children’s books. Random House and Houghton Mifflin commissioned a young author and illustrator named Theodore Geisel to create a new vocabulary primer that would inspire and excite its readers. He wrote The Cat in the Hat and became Dr. Seuss.
Rhyme and repetition were clearly two of the poetic tools Seuss used. In One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish Seuss uses words that rhyme exactly. These straight rhymes create a simple rhyme scheme.
Did you ever fly a kite in bed?
Did you ever walk with ten cats on your head?
Did you ever milk this kind of cow?
Well, we can do it. We know how.
If you never did, you should.
These things are fun and fun is good.
Dr. Seuss did not always use straight rhymes. He sometimes played around with words by using half rhymes – two words that sound alike but don’t rhyme exactly – to add a different rhythm to a book. We can find an example of this in Yertle the Turtle.
“You stay in your place while I sit here and rule.
I’m the king of a cow! And I’m the king of a mule!
I’m the king of a house! And a bush! And a cat!
But that isn’t all. I’ll do better than that!
My throne shall be higher!” his royal voice thundered.
“So pile up more turtles! I want ’bout two hundred!”
If you say ‘thundered’ and ‘hundred’ out loud, you can hear their sneaky half rhyme.
The beauty of many of the rhymes is that the words are unexpected.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
From: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’”
From: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
I meant what I said, and I said what I meant…
An elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!
From: Horton Hatches the Egg
Using the same words and phrases was one way he was able to get young children to read his books on their own. Green Eggs and Ham is a good example of his use of repetition. (This was one of my youngest son’s favorite books, though I must admit the repetition drove me a bit mad on the hundreth reading.)
I will not eat them in a house,
I will not eat them with a mouse,
I will not eat them in a box
I will not eat them with a fox,
I will not eat them here or there
I will not eat them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them Sam I Am.
Dr. Seuss had a 53-year career and is one of the most beloved authors of children’s books. His clever rhymes, humor, invented words and colorful illustrations continue to capture readers. His books have sold over 220 million copies and have been translated into 15 languages, and beyond the books are the films and merchandise that has no poet competition.
In that first book,The Cat in the Hat, there is less repetition and more of a narrative, which might be the approach you take in your poem this month.
Then our mother came in
And she said to us two,
“Did you have any fun?
Tell me. What did you do?”
And Sally and I did not
know what to say.
Should we tell her
The things that went on
there that day?
Well… what would YOU do
If your mother asked you?
His book The Lorax has become an environmental classic that is read by children and adults. Though it is a light-hearted story, it is also a cautionary tale. It has a message about taking collective responsibility for the stewardship of the environment. Not doing so would mean our own world will soon be like the one that the Lorax left behind.
I am the Lorax.
I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees,
for the trees have no tongues.
I meant no harm.
I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger.
So bigger I got.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990) is his last book to be published during his lifetime. The book concerns the journey of life and its challenges. It has become a popular gift for high school and college graduates and also for retirees.
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
Though it has much of Seuss’ style, it also has a narrator and the reader as characters. A young boy, the “you”, is the reader and it is written in second person and uses future tense. YOU is setting forth on an adventure which may be starting kindergarten or college or a new job or retirement.
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
The book is very much about making good choices as you choose the “streets” you will go down, and hopefully avoid ones that are “not-so-good.”
You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, ‘I don’t choose to go there.’
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
And there is also the possibility that none of the usual streets will be to your liking (a road not taken?) and so you have the option to head “out of town.”
And you may not find any
you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you’ll head straight out of town.
It’s opener there
in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.
And then things start to happen,
don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.
This month’s prompt is to write in the style of Dr. Seuss. Does that mean a “children’s poem?” Not at all. We would expect rhyme, some half rhyme, some repetition, perhaps some invented wordplay. Be clever with your theme or message, if there is one. Of course, all that cleverness can be used to entertain too.