In 1973, “Schoolhouse Rock” introduced us young Saturday morning couch spuds to the function of the conjunction. It taught us how to hallelujah properly before our interjections and where to shop for the best adverbs. It was fun learning that snagged our interests with hook-laden pop songs and colorful cartoons, as if we could head-bob our way to higher literacy.
Take that sensibility and back up to about 1885, when Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses was published. Filled with seesawing couplets and playful images, the collection of light verse became a classic celebration of childhood imagination.
Prolific writer Tom Disch’s inventive new book, A Child’s Garden of Grammar, integrates dark gothic humor and Stevenson’s traditional airy form. With cartoon drawings and rhyming grammar rules, it also possesses the catchy, entertaining elements that made all those “Schoolhouse Rock” lyrics stick to our minds like wads of chewed bubble gum on the soles of sneakers.
In order to increase the appeal of learning grammar, or at least make it more interesting, Disch presents its principles in charming yet very unlikely and unusual ways. And in doing so, he and cartoonist Dave Morice (creator of Poetry Comics) have made a book that falls somewhere between late-Victorian nursery rhyme revival and hip-comic grammar manual.
Instead of traditional verses, such as “The Whole Duty of Children” and “The Land of Story-books,” A Child’s Garden of Grammar offers instructive poems titled “The Agreement of Predicate Pronouns” and “Split Infinitives.” And though they sound boring and didactic, they’re anything but.
Almost all of the poems in this collection are partnered with illustrations where verses are broken down and reassembled inside of comic frames and free-floating dialogue balloons. The first piece, “Nouns,” is an exception, appearing in comic form without the poem alongside. In it, the scary, fang-toothed “nounster” greets the reader while gobbling up his fellow characters and grumbling:
A noun’s a thing that has a name
Thus, king’s a noun (and so’s his fame)
The queen’s a noun; so too the knave
Yet nouns are neither fair nor brave
All the fairy-tale castle stuff sounds archaic, but it’s something Disch plays against with funny contemporary references, most notably in “Proper Nouns”:
Some nouns are proper, others plain.
For instance, Massachusetts, Spain,
Consolidated Edison, The Gap,
Our fathers when we call them Pap,
President Lincoln, Senator Dodd,
The Pointer Sisters, Spot and God
Disch — a poet, critic, essayist and novelist — harks back to traditional light verse in much of his own poetry and a revamped gothic style in his fiction. A sort of literary-figure-at-large, he works freely and energetically with things that interest him. This book fits nicely among his extensive and eclectic mix of science fiction novels (Camp Concentration, The Genocides), commentary on poetry (The Castle of Indolence), and books for children, including The Brave Little Toaster.
All these elements make A Children’s Garden of Grammar a useful guide that can be appreciated in various ways: One, as a sort of homage to the lost art of English grammar; two, as an ironic romp with various contrasting genres, eras and styles. And there are, no doubt, other possibilities.
But overall, this bright little volume is full of fun, nostalgia and modern surprises that reflect the enchanting and satisfyingly grown-up complexity of the author. Tom Disch is, after all, a proper noun worth looking up.
Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.