Sunday’s Times was chockablock with poetry. Daisy Fried lit fireworks for Dan Chiasson’s Bicentennial; Stephen Burt quoted liberally (and salaciously, by Gray Lady standards) from Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. Even obscure versifier James Franco got the full-page treatment, as David Orr offered a thoughtful and funny essay on Directing Herbert White. (“But is it, you may be wondering, good? No. But neither is it entirely bad.”) Yet the piece that burrowed into my imagination most strongly, and that made me want to think further about the ways that words might best be arranged on a page, wasn’t about poetry of the Chiasson or Lockwood or even Franco variety; it was about a children’s book. Aimee Bender’s “What Writers Can Learn From ‘Goodnight Moon’” tracks the formal and narrative surprises found in Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 tale of bunnies and bears, combs and cows. Bender, whose own work upends expectations in startling ways, calls Brown’s acts of subversion “radical and illuminating for writers.” Here’s the heart of her argument:
What a surprise, then, to find that there is a blank page with “Goodnight nobody” out of nowhere, sharing a spread with “Goodnight mush.” What a surprise, then, that the story does not end with the old lady whispering “hush” but goes out the window into the night.
Most picture books would close with that old lady—that’s the balanced choice. But we see the stars and feel the air—we’ve been sure we’re staying in but now we’re floating out. Why? And then back in for the ending of “Goodnight noises everywhere.” This, the last page? At first, I looked for another page—why end here? Isn’t it a little abrupt? But (after a few more readings), isn’t it also the way for us to close our eyes metaphorically with the bunny and be in that state right before slipping off to sleep, that magical drifting moment after floating out with the stars and the air, when we only hear noises and next is sleep? The story has moved so close to the bunny as to become an experiential mirror of his drift and fall. How much deeper and more elegant that is than the neat symmetry we might expect.
For writers, this is all such a useful reminder. Yes, move around in a structure. But also float out of that structure. “Goodnight nobody” is an author’s inspired moment that is inexplicable and moving and creates an unknown that lingers. How wonderful that this oddly compassionate moment, where even nobody gets a good night, shows up in the picture book that is the most popular! There is no template, ever.*
So many of my favorite works move around in a structure, only to float out of that structure. Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things,” written in Japan roughly a thousand years ago, enumerates the author’s many annoyances—a drowsy exorcist, a loudly cawing crow, a reedy-voiced mosquito—and punctuates each example, in Ivan Morris’s translation, with “Most hateful!” (or some equally indignant phrase). But Shonagon interrupts her pattern midway through:
A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying. How much more so if he is still seeing the woman! (Yet sometimes I find that it is not as unpleasant as all that.)
Such perversity—and possibility—within those parentheses!
E. A. Robinson’s “Reuben Bright” goes about its sonnet-business in familiar ways (iambic pentameter, full rhymes) until the last line, at which point grief overtakes both the sonnet and its subject, the butcher. The poem has moved beyond numbers; if you try to read the final line as a series of iambs, you’ll get every stress wrong, save for the one that falls on “slaughter.” The closing couplet doesn’t fully close: “house” only half rhymes with “boughs.” The poem ends with two strong stresses (“and tore down the slaughter-house”), leaving form and the known world behind. Goodnight structure. Goodnight Reuben Bright (and Reuben Bright’s wife). Goodnight noises everywhere.
Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.
And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.
* The template-rejecting Goodnight Moon has become, of course, a template unto itself—and thus we have, among other riffs, Goodnight Keith Moon, “Goodnight Nanny-Cam,” and this lovely scene (written by Richard Price) from Season 5, Episode 7 of The Wire: