Some people are afraid of bats, and some people are afraid of cats. Some folks are afraid of flocks, and some folks are afraid of locks. And then some good souls are afraid of—well, there’s no neat rhyme for it, but anapestic rhythms.
A classics professor I knew, for example, earnestly warned, “Listen for the anapest in tragedy. When you hear it, something very bad is about to happen.” Life imitating art and all, he refused to admit the anapest into his daily life, fearing that it would interfere with the normal workings of his heart. And as for listening to reggae, where the anapest is king—well, fuggedaboudit.
Now, if you’re a metrician, you know that the anapest is made up of two short syllables followed by a long one: duh-duh-DUH. The heart beats in iambs, but it might indeed stop beating when the anapest is near, since the latter originated as a drumbeat for an ancient army on the march. (Through groves of larch. With tunics full of starch.)
Which brings us to Theodore Geisel, who was born on March 2, 1904, making him 110. He lives forever, so we’ll use the present tense, even though most people know him only by his middle name: Seuss. Dr. Seuss.
Geisel came to writing the children’s books that made him famous after a short but successful career in advertising. (Among other things, he helped popularize a DDT-like pesticide called Flit). Having reduced the messages beamed to adults to a level that children can understand, he was convinced that children need not in turn be talked down to or bored by earnest didacticism.
Accordingly, he set to work imagining what might happen if children were in charge of things—“I’d make a few changes / yes that’s what I’d do,” says Gerald McGrew, the young hero of If I Ran the Zoo—and depicting a world where the grown-ups who are in charge make a hash of it. Consider Yertle the Turtle, who ordered the rest of his kind to stack up one atop the other so that he could survey his domain from the highest vantage point. Stacks of turtles are doomed to topple, learns Yertle—who, Seuss later said, was meant to suggest Adolf Hitler. And in what rhythm does Yertle pull off his brief victory? Why, the anapest, of course:
And today the Great Yertle, that Marvelous he
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
Not liking Hitler too early earned people the charge of “premature antifascism” back in the days of McCarthy, and Seuss fell under suspicion. By then, however, he had gained enormous popularity as a children’s writer. He seized the throne in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when his books flew off the shelves, subversively instructing American children not to accept creepy adult green eggs and ham or the evils of Scrooge-ism (beg pardon, Grinch-ism) while proving that complex tales can be delivered in a vocabulary confined to just 250 words.
Be not afraid of reverse beats, then, or of skipping up streets. Get those Sneetches to pass a couple of stars this way, and raise your mug and your rug to the good Doctor on this happy day.
Gregory McNamee is the contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews.