31 October 2015

Poem Page

I
n October of 1962 there appeared in the Halloween issue of The Star a short poem in honor of the season. It read (more or less):
     A Halloween Poem. Copyright 1961
You’re looking at a post
When suddenly a ghost
Jumps out and gives a very frightful BOO!
A witch goes riding by
Away up in the sky
And suddenly a black cat howls at you.
The goblins have begun
To have a lot of fun
And then you think “Good grief! It’s Halloween!”
The Star was a short-lived periodical put out by a couple of grade-school kids (me and a friend, actually) from late 1961 to mid-1963 with a brief revival in early 1965. There were perhaps a dozen issues, with no more than fifteen or twenty copies made of each. We sold them to friends, family, and classmates. Only a handful of scattered copies survive.
The poem was mine (I say with reservations), and I wrote it in fifth grade—for what purpose I’m not sure. I wrote stuff like this constantly, often takeoffs and imitations. (I burlesqued Sara Coleridge’s “The Months” for one, by featuring the drawbacks of each month; and I transformed Jane Taylor’s “The Star” into a celebration of artificial satellites.) Most of it had no purpose except to entertain my friends and family, and to some extent to relieve the frustrations of school.
Fifth grade was particularly irritating, what with having a teacher who began the day with prayer and fire-and-brimstone preaching, before launching into a program of rote learning and copying paragraphs off the blackboard or out of books to be handed in and never seen again. (Mrs. Allen didn’t believe in creative writing or returning papers.) Definitions had to be memorized exactly; deviate from the text as handed down by Mrs. Allen by as much as a single word and that answer was wrong. None of this new-fangled nonsense about the idea being the important thing for her; no, memorization was the key whether you understood it or not.
It was in Mrs. Allen’s class that I wrote a poem about Halloween, a poem that my friends at least found amusing enough to hear, recite—and in at least one case, remember. It was not quite the poem as given above, however. You may have noticed something off about the second verse—it is half as long as the first, and is missing a rhyme for the word “Halloween.” As originally written it was a full verse, and there was a rhyme-word—but I have no copy of it from that time, and have to rely on my aging memory. The missing first three lines should have read:
From somewhere up the street
You hear a “trick or treat,”
And a yellow jack o’ lantern can be seen.
In spite of the lapse of time I’m actually quite certain of these lines, although I suppose it could have been down the street rather than up it. At least when I turned this paper up a few years back the other lines were all as I’d remembered them. But even with that the story is a little more complicated.
As I said, I don’t know why I wrote this—but I must have intended it for something, because I gave it to my mother to edit, which I normally did only for something I was submitting to somebody somewhere—a teacher, an editor, whatever. It wouldn’t have been for my teacher; Mrs. Allen had no tolerance for creative efforts by children. (Her light reading, she told us repeatedly, consisted of the Bible and Emerson’s essays.) We didn’t have any sort of literary magazine at the school, as far as I can recall. I might have planned to submit it to a contest or something—but if so that detail now escapes me.
It might have been intended for the first issue of The Star. I was definitely working on it in late October 1961, and I might have planned on including it. I probably didn’t, since the issue actually came out in early November (the last item I added, which I had to make room for, was the death of James Thurber on the 2nd), but that might have been my plan. As far as I know no copy of that issue survives; there were only three of them (since I did it with typewriter and carbonless paper) and I sold them all. But anyway, if I was planning on including it that might explain why I submitted it to my mother.
And that’s where I ran into a problem. You see, the final three lines originally noted that what with things looking as peculiar as they do, you exclaim Good God—maybe it’s Halloween. My mother said that the piece was fine as it stood except for one thing—the expression “Good God” had to go. She suggested “Good grief” as a replacement.
That was all very well and good, but as originally written God was my rhyme-word at the end of the fifth line, probably rhyming with odd at the end of the fourth. (I remember the sense of the thing, but not the exact wording.) Changing God to grief necessitated rewriting the fourth line as well. And, although the original lines had come easily to me, now I couldn’t think of anything that worked.
Abruptly a couplet—the one about goblins given above—popped into my mind and I threw it out at my mother. That’s fine, she said, but how are you going to finish it now? Well, it was easy enough. I didn’t like it, but I truncated the original line about it maybe being Halloween to a sudden realization in half a line, and the verse was done. And my friends seemed to like it as well as the original, so I just let it lie. And a year went by.
During that time my best friend took over as publisher and general manager of The Star (so the surviving issues say) while I held the position of editor. Other friends and relatives are listed as artists, reporters, and so on. We were now using a hectograph (or rather two hectographs) as our printing press. And I seem to have been losing interest in the thing. The Halloween issue of 1962 appears to be almost entirely my friend’s work. Page 3, the poem page, begins with the piece as noted, defective second verse and all.
You see, my friend had memorized the poem—but had forgotten part of it. (Years later he reprinted it in the same defective form for a school paper—also from memory.) It was flattering, I suppose, but I would have been a lot happier if he had managed to remember the whole damn thing—or better yet given me a chance to fix it.
Well, sic transit I guess. Time has passed on, and so has the publisher of The Star, and its chief reporter as well. But I survive, and even if I don’t give a damn now, I feel as if I owe something to the kid I once was. So here, as an act of belated justice to the ten-year-old who would have liked to see his poem published the way he wrote it, I will give it as best I can, allowing for the limitations of my sources and my memory:
You’re looking at a post
When suddenly a ghost
    Jumps out and gives a very frightful BOO!
A witch goes riding by
Away up in the sky
    And suddenly a black cat howls at you.
From somewhere up the street
You hear a “Trick or treat”
    And a yellow jack o’ lantern can be seen.
Since things are looking odd,
You stop and say, “Good God!
    I think perhaps it might be Halloween!”

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