This essay is the backstory for our song “Snake Poem,” which you can listen to below or over here.
The first poem I ever encountered was likely a classic English nursery rhyme — one of many that my mother recited aloud while bouncing me on her knees. I have a physical memory of being jostled playfully as my mom repeated, “Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man.” This progressed to following along as she read from an illustrated book of Mother Goose poems, such as “Hey Diddle Diddle,” “Humpty Dumpty” and “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” — rhymes have been delighting babies for centuries, thanks to the singsong form that’s both captivating and calming. The words themselves seem hardly the point, which is why we don’t notice if they’re nonsensical or mystifying or outright creepy until we rediscover them as adults.
Soon after college, I stumbled on a particular book of Mother Goose poems at my mom’s house. I was flipping through it, enjoying the buzz of nostalgia, when I noticed a thickened section where a couple pages were stuck together — deliberately. I asked Mom about it and she said, “Oh, those pages scared you so I glued them together.” The terrifying poem at issue was “What Are Little Boys Made Of,” with its refrain, “snips and snails and puppy dog tails.” I instantly recalled the gruesome drawing accompanying the line: an airborne swirl of snails and scissors and what appeared to be snipped off puppy dog tails. That image — even the anticipation of it — caused a freak-out upon every reading until Mom applied Elmer’s Glue-All as a salve.
Could this really have been a children’s book illustration? Severed dog tails? Even the Brothers Grimm might find that a bit dark. Might those pale, disembodied curls have been something else? I feared Googling “snipped off puppy dog tails” (glue those web pages together, Mom!), but using careful search terms I did learn that this nursery rhyme’s many variants include one in which snips is replaced with “snigs,” meaning small eels. In another popular version, snips become “snakes.” While this eliminates the act of shearing, I’m not sure adding snakes to the mix would’ve done much to quell my fears.
My mother told me the reason she chose to alter the book, rather than dispose of it, was because I so enjoyed the rest of the poems. She knew my chubby hands would seek out the book on the shelf, and didn’t want those snips to sneak up on me. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Sweet is the swamp with its secrets,/ Until we meet a snake.”
Maybe the old nursery rhyme only meant to imply that little boys are irresistibly drawn to snakes because of their form (hello, phallus!), in the same way that humans are drawn to poems — the form is just so evocative for us. Harrowing illustrations aside, I remained drawn to poems, studied the form and wrote quite a lot of them in college.
More recently, I found myself taken by both snakes and poems at a Seattle event called NEPO 5K Don’t Run, an outdoor urban art walk that occurred every summer from 2011–2015. I loved the NEPO walk because it put surprising art in surprising places around the city. It inspired many discussions about what “counts” as art, especially when Daniel and I brought our young nephew Sal along. Pointing at an intriguingly duct-taped electrical transformer along the route, he asked, “Is that art?” NEPO always sparked new connections. In 2013, the event featured a series of “fake fliers” by Indianapolis-based artist Nathaniel Russell. Using plain sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper posted on telephone poles (a medium usually reserved for lost pets), Russell flipped the form on its head by posting funny, absurd messages that also inspired creative thought. Here’s the one that jumped out at me:
Of course the premise is hilarious, but I also thought, why shouldn’t I write a snake poem? Shouldn’t we all write snake poems, even if we only “meet back” in a collective consciousness sense? Kind of like the way generations have been imprinting the same nursery rhymes on infant synapses for centuries? A few days after seeing the flier, I wrote a short poem called “Snake Poem.” I emailed it to Daniel and asked, “Is this a song?”
Nursery rhymes often sound more like chants than songs, but nonetheless they are classified in the Roud Folk Song Index, which tracks all manner of Anglo-American oral traditions. The lines are called lyrics — even if there never was an accompanying tune, or no one living can remember it. For the index, it’s not so much about the tune as the form, and the social repetition of it. Part of what I connected with on Russell’s fake flier was the implication that “snake poems” is an established American genre, which, judging once again by Google, it basically is.
So when I approached my own snake poem I wanted to embody not just the snake, but the form — the physical feeling we used to get from nursery rhymes, and are sometimes lucky enough to experience as adults with a poem or a song. Once inside, we can take on a radically different shape. As Theodore Roethke puts it in his poem, “Snake,” “I longed to be that thing./ The pure, sensuous form.”