Hist Whist

Hist Whist

Hist Whist by e.e. cummings, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray. Thanks to Melissa Wiley for the recommendation of this one. I think it was at last Halloween. No, looking at Lissa’s post, I guess it was more than a year ago. Last summer.

Anyway, I remembered and requested it from the library a couple weeks ago. And it sat in the basket for a while and I suspected it was a dud. Then someone brought it to me one day and I read it and… no reaction. Definitely a dud. I guess it’s just not right for my gang. Too scary, I thought.

But then a few more days passed and suddenly it came out again and this time something happened. Someone giggled. And then we started talking about it a bit.

“Why does it say, ‘watch out for the woman with the wart on her nose?'”

“What’s a goblin?”

And I started to hear people reciting lines:

“Tiptoe twinkletoes.”

“Hob a nob. Hob a nob.”

“Little twitchy witches.”

“The devil ouch the devil ach the great green dancing devil.”

“At first I thought ‘the devil ooch, the devil ouch, the devil ach’ were the names of the different devils.”

“Why do the kids say “wheeeee” at the end?”

And now we’re all working on memorizing the whole thing.

I love the poem, of course. e.e. cummings is just so delightful. Ghostthings and scuttling eyes and all. But in this one the pictures by Deborah Kogan Ray really make the book. These delightful pictures that imagine a story to the poem, a group of trick-or-treaters dashing through the dark on Halloween. They are so soft and dark; yet rich with suggestion. They could be a little creepy and scary. Yes, even more than a little scary, but it’s all the power of suggestion. Up till that final delightful page when suddenly all the figures of ghosts and witches and mousies and toads and devils are revealed to be cute as a button children holding masks in their hands with laughing chubby faces and smiling eyes. See, it says, not so scary after all. Look again.

Thinking about our ongoing conversation about teaching children to manage fears. We’ve had several great books recently in that vein. And yes I’m a bit surprised at how they have taken to this one. It both entertains the fears and then dismisses them. It takes them seriously and yet not too seriously. There is such playful delight in the language, tingling and itching and hiding. And the pictures really do play along.

This I wouldn’t mind owning a copy of. Funny too how I want to add more poetry but the anthologies so often don’t work for me. I need something like this, that captures my imagination and theirs. Then memorization just kind of happens because we don’t want to let it go. We want to caress the words longer, to have them linger in our brains and on our tongues. And so those caresses are so easily lengthened just a bit until the words just fall into place. Repeat repeat repeat and now I’ve got it down and soon they may too. Organic, not assigned; delight not forced. This works. I just need to find more books like it. More poems that want to worm their way in.

You can read the poem here.

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  • Poetry is like song, isn’t it, stored in another part of the brain entire and whole. People can still sing songs and quote poetry when their minds can no longer manage conscious dialogue. Such a gift.

    AA Milne’s poems from When we were very young and Now we are six are practically in my parent’s and children’s genes. We grew up reciting them, and like cult movie fans, find ourselves quoting odd bits to make a point… Have you got wheezles and sneezles? “But now that I’m six, I’m clever as clever!” “and that, said John, is that!”, and “you must never go down to the end of the town if you don’t go down with me!” The rhythm is terrific and we love the gentle humour- the melodrama of “James, James, Morrison, Morrison, Weatherby George Dupree…”, the solitary joy of “that’s why he always goes hoppity, hoppity, hoppity, hoppity, hop”. The pictures counterpoint the poems eg in Before Tea “and she says my hands are purfickly clean!” Plus the words and phrases are set out so beautifully on the page. I remember when I was beginning to read them for myself when I was five or six, loving the one and two word lines- so much easier to read. I was a bit Suzuki method (violin)- I already knew the poems so finding pictures and patterns of words to fit was very satisfying.

    • Oh yes. Milne is brilliant. I am so sad I never discovered him as a child beyond a couple of the Pooh stories. I first met his poetry when I was in college and a friend gave me a box set of the complete Pooh stories and poems in two volumes. But even then I didn’t REALLY read them. Not until I started to read them to Bella did I come to appreciate their genius.

      • I agree there’s genius there. So few words used and yet such mood and atmosphere created. I think AA Milne and his son, the Christopher Robin of the stories, were somewhat lonely (though much loved) individuals. They lived a very quiet life on the edge of a country village. They individually would walk for miles each day, in the woods and fields, all of which was conducive to a rich imaginative life.
        They were key texts for me, growing up. I think they contributed to my sense of the world as a place where children’s experiences are hyer-real, profound and important. Children are precious and vulnerable but also have an in-touchness with the eternal things, and an affinity with all small and wild things- mice, rabbits, daffodils. And wonder.
        On another tack, I learned narrative structure from the story poems “I had a penny,… I had a penny and I had another penny, …I had a sixpence, …I had nuffin’, and “Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on..”
        And the delights of punctuation- “Plain Mr Botany (B).” Love the parentheses. And best of all, the last whispered verse of Disobedience.

  • +JMJ+

    The concept reminds me very much of The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s true that masks are often very scary. But it’s also true that the people who wear the masks can be perfectly ordinary and friendly! I think this is a good lesson for all of us to learn in our lives. =)

  • We have a beautiful storybook copy of Fern Hill. I’ve convinced the boys to sit through it a couple of times because of the pictures. Aside from those, Nat isn’t convinced about Dylan Thomas. He likes poetry that rhymes. I’m going to have to look for Hist Whist for next Halloween. Actually, now that I think about it, Nat would probably like e e cummings. He likes rhyming poetry and he likes made-up words and nonsense. I should try him on some of it.

    I also have A A Milne in the back of my head. My Mum read it to me when I was small, and I remember walking with Nathaniel through the hospital corridors when he was a day old, reciting “James James Morrison Morrison” and “It little profits/That an idle king/ By this still hearth…”