Thursday, March 10, 2016

Carrie Clickard: Scanning the Seuss Man Clickard has encountered some of the most villainous versifiers in the line of duty.  

Today, in the spirit of political shenanigans and social unrest, she enlists the help of fuzzy ducks to make sense of it all. Well, not really ducks exactly...  Sneetches.

Whether or not you have stars upon thars, enjoy this latest installment from TLD's Rhyme Crime Investigator!

(Click on the wanted posters for Carrie's previous posts.)

A look at a legend:  Scanning the Seuss man

There are over sixty Dr. Seuss books in print today and over 100 million copies have been sold. His books are read around the world in more than twenty languages. Clearly he has a lot to teach any of us about how to craft successful rhyme. There are only a rare few out there in writer-land that might claim to do it better.

That doesn’t mean, however, that every Seussian work is absolutely flawless.  Let’s take a Rhyme Crime look at THE SNEETCHES by Dr. Seuss, our mentor text for today, and see how it holds up to scrutiny. (You'll find the video version HERE.)

First, a disclaimer: Before I set out, I must confess to being a lifelong fan-girl of the Seuss man. This may mean that during this critique I cut him more slack than I should.  Feel free to call me on it, or chime in with your own observations, if you think I’ve missed something useful. 

Let’s start with some basics.

WORD COUNT:  826 words, THE SNEETCHES might be considered a bit long in today’s market, but not intolerably so. Many editors now say the sweet spot for picture books is 500 words and under, but that’s not a hard and fast cutoff. Three of my four rhyming picture books have over 700 words.

RHYME SCHEME:  Rhyming couplets. A-A, B-B, C-C  etc. (with one or two exceptions).

METER:  Anapestic Tetrameter, aka Reverse Dactyl. Each line of the verse can be divided into four feet, each foot has three beats, with the stress/accent on the third beat:

          da da DAH, da da DAH, da da DAH, da da DAH

However be warned: the good doctor takes a few liberties with his meter along the way, and we’re going to talk about that first.

Ready to dive in? Here we go:

          Now, the STAR-belly SNEETCHes had BELLies with STARS.
          The PLAIN-belly SNEETCHes had NONE upon THARS.

Right here in the opening couplet Seuss sets us up for a slightly nonstandard rhythm.  The first line has 12 beats. The second line has 11. The first line is straight anaPEST, emphasis on every third syllable. But the second line skips the first beat.  Its first foot is iambic, then it falls back into anapestic for the next three feet.

Some people might read it aloud without an accent on SNEETCH in the second line at all:

          The PLAIN-belly sneetches had NONE upon THARS.

          da DAH da-da da-da, da DAH, da da DAH

So what is Seuss’ intent? It’s a little too early to tell.  Maybe this is a unique rhythm pattern that we can follow through the poem.  Let’s try the next couplet and see.

          Those STARS weren’t so BIG. They were REAL-ly so SMALL
          You might THINK such a THING wouldn’t MATter at ALL.

Hmmm.  This time we have a shorter line first, 11 beats, starting with that short iambic foot. And then we have a 12 beat line, straight anapest.  That makes the first two couplets mirror images of each other.

Maybe that’s a clue.  Seuss could be building four line stanzas with this pattern:

          anaPEST anaPEST anaPEST anaPEST      (12 beats)
          iAMB, anaPEST, anaPEST, anaPEST        (11 beats)
          iAMB, anaPEST, anaPEST, anaPEST        (11 beats)
          anaPEST anaPEST anaPEST anaPEST      (12 beats)

Interesting.  Let’s try another four lines.  I won’t mark them out. Let’s see if you read them the same way I do.

          But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
          Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches."
          With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
          “We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”

It’s not quite a match, is it?  Line two does start out with a short two beat foot, but line three is straight anapest, and so is line four.  And did you catch the extra beat in both lines of the first couplet?

Clearly, Seuss is being a bit, ahem, flexible in his meter and structure. From our reading so far, it seems we need to let each couplet stand on its own. Okay. I’m game.  Of the next six couplets there are:

  • two couplets with the “short” second line
  • one with a short first line
  • one that has both lines in perfect anapest
  • and two couplets where BOTH lines start with the “short”  foot.

PHEW!  If that’s a pattern, it’s one for a crazy quilt.  So what in the world does all of this mind-boggling, syllable counting tell us?  Have we discovered a fatally flawed Dr. Seuss book?

No, no. I’m not about to sully the great Seuss’ honor. What we have here, in my opinion, is an excellent example of letting the verse serve the story, and NOT the other way around. Clearly Seuss is not following the precise form or sticking to rigid line length and meter.  And yes, he’s definitely bending a few rules.  But does it harm the story? Does it make the book bad to read aloud?

Not one bit.

Take a moment and read the rest of the way through the book as you would with a child, letting your narrative voice take over instead of your inner critic.  Notice how the change in rhythm often emphasizes a point in the plot. A tiny difference in line length breaks up the text just where the rhythm might become too repetitive. The liberties Seuss takes actually strengthen his storytelling.

This is a hard lesson to learn: knowing when it’s okay to bend the rules as rhymers.  Bend them too much, or too early in your career, and you may find your work labeled as “inconsistent” or “unpolished” by editors. Avoid bending them at all and you risk writing sing-song, snooze worthy verse.  

That’s not to say there aren’t a few areas where the Sneetches’ rhyme could have been the eensiest bit stronger. (I won’t say better. Nope. Not me.)  Let’s look at two quick examples.

Seuss’ choice of using dialect for “thars” to rhyme with stars, yet not using any other southern or western pronunciations, feels a bit like cheating. It’s cute and it works within the story, but I’m not sure it would fly with many of today’s editors. If I was giving feedback to a crit buddy, I’d probably label this a prime example of using weasel words to get out of a tough rhyme situation.
In the middle of the text Seuss uses one of his marvelous made up words:
          So they clambered inside. Then the big machine roared
          And it klonked. And it bonked. And it jerked. And it berked
          And it bopped them about. But the thing really worked!

“Berked.” It’s funny sounding and fun to read aloud, and more importantly it rhymes with “worked” and “jerked.” But where most of Seuss’ other word creations are hilarious onomatopoeia, wildly imagined creatures or fantastical inventions, this one seems made up solely to get him out of a tough rhyme spot. The same can be said for his couplet that reads:
"...I’ll make you, again, the best Sneetches on beaches
And all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches."
Eaches? Really? 

Because he’s Seuss, he can get away with it. I strongly suggest you don’t try it until you’ve published at least half as many books as he has. (wink)

Thanks once again for coming along on another Rhyme Crime investigation. I hope you found something useful to squirrel away in your writer’s tool cabinet.  And if you’re out there listening, dearest Doctor, forgive me my presumption. No one has inspired me more.

Go on now, write something amazing.

Thanks for another amazing and inspiring post, Carrie!

Carrie Clickard is an internationally published author and poet.  Her first picture book, VICTRICIA MALICIA, debuted in 2012 from Flashlight Press. Forthcoming books include MAGIC FOR SALE (Holiday House, 2017), DUMPLING DREAMS (Simon and Schuster 2017) and THOMAS JEFFERSON & THE MAMMOTH HUNT (Simon and Schuster, 2017). Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals including Spider, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Havok, Myriad Lands, Clubhouse, Spellbound, Penumbra, Haiku of the Dead, Underneath the Juniper Tree, Inchoate Echoes, and The Brisling Tide

In case you missed last week's spotlight interview with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, she's challenged us to write poems about small things– animals or objects you see everyday and don't give much thought. Click HERE for more details.  Featured this week were poems by Jessica Bigi and Joy Acey, as well as a related quotation by Yoko Ono.

Thanks to Irene Latham for hosting this week's Poetry Friday roundup at Live Your Poem.


  1. This post reminds me of how hopeless I am at reading meter! I do prefer a flexible, crazy quilt style, that's for sure. :) Thank you for the lesson! I have long loved those Sneetches. xo

    1. Nice to meet another Sneetch lover! If we could just get all the editors to approve of crazy quilt style, imagine where we'd be? (grin) Thanks for joining us!

  2. Carrie, I'm a devoted Suess fan also, especially for his created words.
    I laughed with you during this lesson.

    And I think Irene & I are in the same meter reader club.

    Appreciations to you & Michelle. Happy, clappy weekend!

    1. Thanks, Jan. Meter reading is a task I put right up there with diagramming sentences. (grin) At least with Seuss we have someone fun to live through it with.

  3. This a most wonderful post....thank you!!!!!

  4. Thanks, Michelle for letting me play in your wonderful poetry sandbox again. I meet the nicest people here!

    1. Always a pleasure, Carrie. Didn't think it was possible, but somehow you manage to make scansion fun! Guess you just hang out with the right fuzzy ducks. :)

  5. What touched me the most, Carrie, is your explanation of the parts that Seuss did so cleverly, and how you broke apart the lines to show us just how it happened. It's like changing to a short sentence in prose to give the reader a break. Thanks, always enjoy what you share.

    1. Thanks, so much Linda. I'm surprised by something in the rhyme every time I do a post for Michelle. It's like a painter studying Renoir's or Michelangelo's brushstrokes -- the closer we look the more we can learn.

  6. Seuss does like to end lines on accented beats, and I wonder if he intended beachES and eachES to end that way. How do you read it?

    1. Interesting question, Joy. I confess I defaulted to BEACHes/EACHes with the accent on the first syllable. However, he is a tricksy rhymer, so I suppose anything is possible. Thanks for making me go back and ponder. I love a fresh viewpoint.

  7. Great lesson! I always learn lots from the Rhyme Crime Investigator!

    1. Thanks, Mary. I end up learning something every time too. It's fun brain exercise with fun people (and a lot easier than my zumba class - wink)

  8. Excellent post, Carrie. The way you break down these rhythms and meters gets my brain gears clicking. You're right -- the verse has to serve the story, and some silliness (the "eaches") has to be allowed. Children have a good laugh at these intentional "mistakes."

    1. Thanks, Laura. I agree, having kids point out those "oops" words is one of my favorite parts of read aloud sessions. And who can't use a little extra silliness in their life?

  9. I find the Sneetches great fun. The title tips his hand that he will be making up words, and he doesn't disappoint. I think dropping an unaccented word from the beginning of a line could just be allowing for a breath at the end of a sentence. I wonder if that is part of the pattern, but I haven't pulled out my copy of Sneetches to check. He was very clever in his writing. My kids love us to read his books out loud.

  10. I find these Rhyme (Scene) Investigations fascinating. I like that we examined Seuss, the master himself. A lot can be learned from what he did and did NOT do with his storytelling. Thanks, Carrie (and Michelle)! =)

  11. Thanks, Carrie. I'm a huge Seuss fan and enjoyed your investigation! And thanks to you, Michelle, for hosting Carrie :D