Selected by Kathleen Ossip
National Poetry Month 2016
Letter from the Editors
Our thanks to Kathleen Ossip for today's Poet's Pick!
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Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary!
Don Selby & Diane Boller
Kathleen Ossip's Poetry Month Pick, April 7, 2016
"If All the World Were Paper"
If all the world were paper,
And all the sea were ink;
And all the trees were bread and cheese,
What should we do for drink?
If all the world were sand’o,
Oh then what should we lack’o;
If as they say there were no clay,
How should we take tobacco?
If all our vessels ran’a,
If none but had a crack’a;
If Spanish apes ate all the grapes,
What should we do for sack’a?
If fryers had no bald pates,
Nor nuns had no dark cloysters;
If all the seas were beans and peas,
What should we do for oysters?
If there had been no projects,
Nor none that did great wrongs;
If fiddlers shall turn players all,
What should we do for songs?
If all things were eternal,
And nothing their end bringing;
If this should be then how should we
Here make an end of singing?
Kathleen Ossip Comments:
I wanted to choose a poem by a woman, and I believe with Virginia Woolf that “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” I can easily imagine this nursery rhyme, which first appeared in a volume called Facetiae: Musarum Deliciae, or The Muses Recreation. conteining severall Pieces of poetique wit. By Sr. J. M. and Ja: S 1658. AND Wit Restor’d, in severall select poems, not formerly publisht, coming from the pen of a mother or nursemaid or schoolteacher who’d heard a few too many Why’s and What if’s. While the author’s names on the volume are enigmatical and inconclusive, Sr., as an abbreviation for “Sister,” suggests a female author. So does the sub-subtitle, The Muses Recreation; everyone knew the Muse was a woman, and the idea of her playing around by inspiring the poet in herself puts me in mind of Anne Bradstreet’s title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, published at about the same time.
I first encountered this poem in a shorter form in my grass-green, clothbound childhood Mother Goose, which had first been my mother’s childhood book. Grass-green threads pulled from the cover and the glued binding crackled. There were illustrations by Tasha Tudor, which depicted the familiar characters (Humpty Dumpty, Little Miss Muffet, etc.), but what mostly caught my eye in the drawings were the backgrounds, scenes of pastoral, idyllic and idealized pre-industrial, green and pleasant England. As a suburban, pre-screen kid, I knew the joy of sunshine, spring air, dirt, pebbles, wildflowers, but these pictures suggested the Platonic ideal of all those familiar friends. Thus a lifelong Anglophilia was born.
This “nonsense” poem is just as elemental as the rolling hillocks and weathered stiles in the pictures. As a primer on if-then causal logic, it subverts conclusion by following each three-line premise sequence with a question. Like all good poems, it wonders more than it answers. It addresses the dawning consciousness, which we all acquire some time before adolescence, that the world is contingent, that you may be happy now but in other circumstances, at other times and places, might very well not be. Nursery rhymes often help children play with fantasies about what might horrify them if looked at seriously. This one considers the possibility of life without water, without food, without song. It further explores children’s fears by asking them to imagine themselves into an adulthood they’re unprepared for, as smokers of tobacco and drinkers of sack (sherry). It strips the world of religious faith by erasing those friars and nuns. It’s a poem of apocalypse.
What comforts in the face of apocalypse? The pleasures of form balance the terrors of everything we need being thrown into confusion. Rhyme might in fact be the ultimate answer to Why and What if, the primal Everything’s all right inherent in language: If meaning dissolves, at least we can sing, and if we don’t get the material payoff of resolution we still can have the physical sensation of it, predictably, in lines two and four, and internally in line 3. And the question format implies both a speaker and a listener, so the plunge into chaos can at least take place hand-in-hand. And never underestimate whimsy, the last-ditch internal evasion that can always change tears to giggles, the o and a added to the ends of lines in stanzas 2 and 3 for an extra syllabic bounce, the snackable trees, the Spanish (why Spanish?) apes!
In the last stanza, the poem’s meta-conclusion/non-conclusion looks ahead to the all-American contemporary parent-torturing “Song that Never Ends”:
How do you understand a poem that ends by declaring ending is impossible? How do you understand a poem that asks but doesn’t answer? As a little like life?(And bonus points for subliminally uploading in young minds the sound of the correct use of the subjunctive verb form!)
Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Cold War (one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2011), The Search Engine (selected by Derek Walcott for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize), and Cinephrastics, a chapbook of movie poems. She teaches at The New School in New York and online for The Poetry School of London. She was a founding editor of LIT and is the poetry editor of Women's Studies Quarterly. She has received a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
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