Friday, December 19, 2008

Dr. Seuss is a high-modernist

Currently the top three most popular books in our house are all by Theodore Geisel, aka, Dr. Seuss. Over the past months I have had a LOT of time to consider the oeuvre of the man who authored and illustrated among many others The Cat in the Hat, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and the pick of tonight, The Shape of Me and Other Stuff, read four times back to back straight through, the first three times ending with a simple reply, "again," and the last with "all done."

Dr. Seuss' work stands out among the many other children's books that carpet our house in a number of ways and I have been thinking about why. The sun sets early these days. The answer lies in how his world is formed out of his formal relation with language and drawing. I know next to nothing about his creative process, but have a number of his books memorized, and I can say with the authority of familiarity that the underlying structure of the language sets the foundation for the incredible universe that follows.

The words come together first because they sound great together. It is hard to find an awkward line. From there, Dr. Seuss illustrates a world that is uttery convincing and is built entirely around the language. There is Jerry Jordan and his jelly jar, a yawning yellow yak with Yolanda on his back (Yolanda looks like a complete brat and is yelling just as loud as the yak is yawning wide) and my all time favorite, the Quick Queen of Quincy and her quacking quackeroo.

Consider this from a page in Wet Pet Dry Pet, which is an adaptation of One Fish Two Fish...

Who is this pet?
Say! He is wet.

You never met a pet, I bet,
As wet as they let this wet pet get.

Once you can wrap your tongue around the rhyme, chant it in syncopation. Genius. Such joy in the language. You can do an amazing jazz rendition. My audience loved it.

Throughout his books Dr. Seuss' visuals are driven by the language, and the language is driven by the sound of the words, which when strung together lead to narratives, beings, and places that are incredibly integrated in their relationships with each other. All of this is built on the formal qualities of the language itself, which makes Dr. Seuss a modernist. A joyful modernist with a bit of a dark side. Just my kind of guy.