Rhymes for the Times

In times such as we are passing through, poetry is catharsis; it is a way to share emotions and feelings; it represents the triumph of creativity even in difficult situations; it brings a ray of hope and humour, albeit often black.

And so naturally, there have been thousands of poems on COVID all over print media and social media. In fact, the Washington Post focused its annual kids’ poetry writing competition on Corona this year, with “Poetry of the Pandemic” as the theme of their 2021 poetry contest.

Corona Poetry has taken such proportions that there are several appeals against more of the genre.

So this piece will now stop talking about Corona and move on to trivia about other well-known nursery rhymes.

A widely-held belief—though some scholars disagree—is that ‘Ring-A-Ring of Roses’ has its origins in another pandemic, the Great Plague. The ‘roses’ are the red rashes which are a symptom of the disease; the ‘posies’ are the herbs that were carried as a protection against the infection; and the ‘Atishoo, atishoo’ (which at least in my childhood version became ‘husha-busha’!) represents the final sneezing before falling down dead.

But moving on to some poems with non-pandemic associations:

The rhyme ‘There was a little girl, who had a little curl’ is believed to have been written by the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for his daughter Edith, on a day she was throwing tantrums about having her hair curled. Well, I suppose that is the difference between poets and others—most parents’ reaction to a tantrum is a raised pitch rather than a rhyming verse!

‘Humpty Dumpty’ is very ancient and there are variants all over Europe. This is obviously a riddle whose answer is ‘egg’, but seems to have lost that connotation, especially as most illustrations of the poem clearly show an egg, not leaving any suspense.

‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy’ is played with counters, and is supposed to indicate what the child will become when it grows up.

The historical event of the Norse King Olaf destroying the London Bridge in the 11th century probably gave rise to the popular ditty ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Children across the world wistfully recite ‘Rain, rain go away’ when downpourings stop their games. The poem’s origins go back to ancient Greece, and it is supposed to be a charm to keep rain away.

‘Little Miss Muffet’ was probably written  Dr. Thomas Muffet, an entomologist of the 16th century, who was fascinated by spiders for his daughter Patience. ‘Incy winsy spider’ or ‘Itsy bitsy spider’ the other popular spider-verse was first published around 1910, thought it may be older. It is a ‘finger song’ and children mimic the actions of a spider climbing up and down.

A popular poem about an insect is ‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away home’. It is to be recited when a ladybird lands on your hand or arm, as harming these creatures is supposed to bring bad luck.

 ‘This little pig went to market’ is a toe game played with toddlers while counting off their toes.

While the origins of many nursery rhymes is speculative, the author of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ is known definitively to be Jane Taylor, who published this in 1806. She and her sister Ann were popular nursery-rhyme writers.

And to end, a story about a poem which is not very popular today.

Three wise of Gotham

Went to sea in a bowl.

If the bowl had been stronger

My story would have been longer.

It does not rhyme particularly well, and sounds pretty abrupt. But the origin-story is very interesting. Apparently, in England during the reign of King John (about 800 years back), when the King passed through any road, that road became a public road. Now the King on one of his journeys planned to pass through the village of Gotham. The citizens of that village did not want their village road to become a thoroughfare. So they came up with a strategy. They all decided to start acting completely silly when the King’s advance party came around. So some went in pursuit of a cuckoo, and spread the word that they were doing it to capture it and hence have perpetual summer. Others tried to drown an eel in a pond. The King’s guards were convinced that the villagers were all mad, and advised the King to change his route, which he did. So the ‘mad men’ were actually wise, and saved their village.

If only we could strategize, cooperate and subvert the more unreasonable of the plans of our rulers like this!

–Meena

I Wonder

While I soak in the sunshine on a pleasantly cool Ahmedabad winter day I read that the big Arctic chill has hit North America and Europe. It’s cold, cold, cold! News reports show how the blanket of snow has brought life to a standstill, and people are being interviewed to share how they are coping.

I remember a poem that wonders how the Snow itself must feel.

SNOW PILE

Snow on top
must feel chilly
the cold moonlight piercing it.

 Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.

 Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.

The poem was written in the 1920s by a young Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko. “Teru” as she was called, was born in 1903 in a family of booksellers in a small fishing village in western Japan.  The book-loving child was encouraged to study by her mother and grandmother, and she stayed in school until she was 18, a rare achievement for Japanese girls at the time. She began writing poetry at age 20, and signed her work “Misuzu”, in an allusion to classical Japanese literature meaning “where the bamboo is reaped.”

In her poetry, Misuzu would share her sense of curiosity and wonder–What does snow feel in a drift?  Where does day end and night begin?  Why don’t adults ask the questions children do?   “To Misuzu, everything was alive and had its own feelings—plants, rocks, even telephone poles! She felt the loneliness of whale calves orphaned after a hunt. She felt the night-time chill of cicadas who had shed their old shells. And she felt the tearful sadness of a flower wet with dew.”

Sadly her personal life was tragic and she committed suicide when she was only 27 years old. Kaneko and her work were forgotten for the next 50 years. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family. It is only in the 1980s that another Japanese poet Setsuo Yazaki, recovered her poetry manuscripts and these were published.

Today, almost a 100 years later, Kaneko’s poems remain as fresh and moving with their innocent sense of wonder.

I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.


I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.


I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.


I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”

If only we could all retain that magical sense of wonder rather than simply accepting “That’s just how it is.”

–Mamata