The House that Jack and Others Built

John Mole - 28 March 2006

This being my last contribution as the Archive's first resident poet, rather than attempt to get a debate going I thought I'd just say a few words about one particular thread which runs through my own writing, an example of which ( 'Variations on an Old Rhyme' ) can be heard and seen on this site. It takes as its form 'The House that Jack Built' which has always been a favourite of mine. Several poets have improvised upon it, perhaps most notably Elizabeth Bishop in her 'Visits to St. Elizabeth's'. St. Elizabeth's was the hospital in Washington to which the poet Ezra Pound was admitted at the end of WW2 to avoid his being convicted for treason after he made broadcasts on Rome Radio defending fascism to American troops.

My own version of the rhyme was written in the early stages of the war in Iraq, and is probably the most 'political' of the poems in which I adapt traditional childhood rhymes. What I hope I succeed in doing is to raise serious issues in a form which might not be expected to do so, and to surprise the reader who might have been expecting mere playfulness. On other occasions I have taken nursery games, counting rhymes and snatches of childhood lore as the template for poems, not least because I am firmly of the opinion that these are where, for many of us, a love of poetry begins. On the street, in the playground, around the house accompanying daily activities and giving them a kind of extra life. Rhyme and rhythm combining to define and enhance experience. It has always fascinated me that certain rhymes attributed to Anon in anthologies were, in fact, written by known ( if forgotten ) authors. Take, for example, this - by Hughes Mearns ( 1875 - 1965 ) but often unattributed: 'As I was walking up the stair/ I met a man who wasn't there./ He wasn't there again today./ I wish, I wish he'd stay away.' Perhaps the greatest compliment a poet can be paid is to become anonymous in this way. As far as I am aware, this has only happened to me once when my poem 'Jack in a Box' appeared as by Anon in a school anthology. Perhaps my response would be considered unprofessional by fellow poets but I was, in fact, delighted ( though I did notify the publisher and collect my fee! ). In case it might be of interest, other poems of mine which make use of, or allude to, childhood rhymes and games include 'Potatoes' and 'Strange Meeting' ( from 'The Wonder Dish' ), 'Mr. Cartwright's Counting Rhyme' ( from 'Boo to a Goose' ) and 'Time to Get Up' ( from 'The Dummy's Dilemma' ), this last being another one based on 'The House that Jack Built'. You can't keep a good rhyme down!

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Glossary term

Pantoum

A poem of four-line stanzas in which each stanza repeats two lines from the previous stanza.

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