Friday, August 01, 2008

Jack Be Nimble: Theme and Variation in American Lit

In my junior year at Goshen College, a small, liberal arts Mennonite school, I took an American Literature Survey course. Our big project for the end of the semester was a term paper (I wrote mine on E.E. Cummings), a timeline, a few other things I can't remember but which seemed important at the time, and a creative piece. In the class, there was a quiet guy who had transfered to my college as a senior, although I didn't know it at the time. When it was time to share our creative projects, he pulled out a series of poems based on the nursery rhyme, "Jack Be Nimble" as if it had been written by different American authors and poets.

I thought it was funny. I thought it was brilliant. I wish I had written it myself. So did my classmates! When the English department newsletter printed it, I stuck it to my bulletin board. The following year, I found out that the American Literature professor had everyone in his class write parodies in a similar vein.

Years later, I looked for the Jack Be Nimble project among my papers, but couldn't find it. I wanted to share it with other people, but I couldn't remember more than the gist of the Walt Whitman section followed by Emily Dickinson and Gwendolyn Brooks. I couldn't even remember the name of the guy who wrote it-- all that I knew was that he had shown up one year, and was gone the next.

Then, K.Jay of Amish Guitar wrote to me after finding the chords to a Mennonite hymn I had posted, and pointed out that we were English majors together for a brief time. I didn't really remember him, but we had enough in common that we struck up an online friendship. Earlier this week, after discussing poetry, K.Jay wrote, "As a treat I pulled out a old assignment from American Lit. I hope you find amusement in it."

It was the Jack project! Suddenly, I remembered K.Jay perfectly, and told him how much we all enjoyed his poems. K.Jay gave me permission to publish them here for Poetry Friday:

The Mother Goose rhyme:

Jack be nimble.
Jack be quick.
Jack jump over the candlestick.

* * *

Walt Whitman

Jack and Jane, Bill and Sarah
Mike, Lisa, Fred and Barney.
All of us
and me
and you.
We are nimble, quick, and agile.
Lively, spry, deft and dexterous.
For the impulsion to lift ourselves over the candlestick.
We can. We can do it.
The challenge is ours.

Emily Dickinson


Gwendolyn Brooks

That Jack. He
Be nimble. He
Be quick. He
Jump stick. He
Fall down. He
Hit ground.

e. e. cummings

@jack is jump
nimble, bimble, up, down.
all over town%(>>
candlestick over jump he
nimble, bimble, up, *down.

J. D. Salinger

Well, you know, Jack. I mean, Jack, He is quick and all. I mean quick and nimble and all. God. I mean he jumps over candlesticks and everything. That is, a candlestick. I mean Jack could, if he wanted to, jump over the candlestick and all. God.

Edward Albee

I looked at the candlestick and I think it looked back at me if you know what I mean. At first I tried to be nimble. But soon I found that I also had to be quick. But then I took another look at the candlestick as it dared me to jump over it. I jumped over it. And then the candlestick and I became friends.

* * *

©K.Jay 1993, 2008

By the way, there is an unofficial saying among the Mennonites, based on a potato-chip commerical: "Mennonites. You can't meet just one." Although there may be only one and a half million Mennonites in the whole world, chances are that if you (1) are Mennonite (2) meet another Mennonite, you will find out that (a) you are cousins (b) someone in his or her family dated and/or is married to someone in your family. As far as we know, K.Jay and I are not cousins, but one of his wife's ancestors broke his engagement to one of my ancestors! (We don't harbor any hard feelings about the matter.)

This week's Poetry Friday Round-up is at The Well-Read Child.


GraceAnne LadyHawk said...

What a great story, full of things I like best: memory, friendship, wordplay.

TadMack said...

How exciting to meet up with someone brilliant after ages and ages! And another Mennonite! How funny! I wonder if anyone else has connections like that...

Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

That is the best "found each other again over the internet" story. And the poems! Brilliant. I especially like the Gwendolyn Brooks one. Thanks!

Missy said...

I am the granddaughter of that ancestor that broke your ancestor's heart and I appologize by proxy, but I do enjoy being alive and am grateful for Nelson and Christmas Carol's procreation!

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Thank you, all! That reminds me that I to finally received the lyrics to a song another Mennonite friend sang to the folksified tune of The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman." The chorus is, "She's a Mennonite woman-- gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme that Mennonite luff." I hope he records it on YouTube someday because it really does need to be heard to be believed.

Missy: All is forgiven.:) Still, it would make a funny musical if the families had feuded over it. (Maybe not so funny or musical if it ended up being a shunning.)

jama said...

Love this post. What a great reunion story, and those poems are wonderful. cummings has always been my favorite poet :)!

K. Jay said...

Brilliant? Careful. You're gonna make this Menno Boy blush with embarrassment and cause me to stop being humble. Then what will I do? I'll have to get up in front of the congregation and confess my sins. :)

Thank you all who have commented on my parodies. And thank you Alkelda for choosing them for inclusion in your Friday Roundup. In some ways I feel like I've finally been selected for Broadsides. :)

Charlotte said...

Oh that is funny! Thanks for sharing them! I especially liked the Salinger one lots. Someone once pointed out to me that many of Emily Dickinson's poems can be sung perfectly to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," (try it--"because I would not stop for death, death kindly stopped for ME!" which has become so part of my brain that I can't quite buy her poem here...

Lone Star Ma said...

What a wonderful story (and wonderful Jack verses!)! I wonder what a Mennonite feud would be like...

Oh,'s Friday.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Charlotte: I've also heard that many Dickinson poems work for both the Gilligan's Island theme and the "New Britain" version of "Amazing Grace." How's this:

Because I could not jump for Jack,
He nimbly jumped for me--
So quickly o'er the Candlestick
Into his Destiny."

LSM: A Mennonite feud can totally lay a person flat! There are no swords, of course, but all of that "engaging in loving dialogue" and "fellowshipping" will send a person running for the dessert table.

K.Jay: Now, see, if you were Catholic, you could confess your sins in private.;)

Jama: Yes! Mine too. Once I got to college, I realized that the high school teachers were holding out on me by only studying the "Balloonman" poem.

Anamaria: I'm glad you enjoyed them! The Brooks one is my favorite too.

TadMack: I suspect that small colleges have those kinds of connections. Bede's alma mater certainly reminds me of mine in that way.

Graceanne: Thank you. By the way, I just took a photo of my daughter standing in our sunflower patch. I'll post it for you soon.

K. Jay said...

A Mennonite feud would be the ultimate in passive aggression. Not a single cross word would be exchanged yet both sides would be laid in ruin.

Lone Star Ma said...

Sounds kind of fun...

Charlotte said...

Oh yes, I like the new Emily one much better! And now I have Gilligan's Island in my head....

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

K.Jay: You're right. No cross words, and no Scrabble games either!

Lori said...

Woe is me for coming being out of blog contact for so long and coming to this late! This is too fantastic; I love the ee cummings one. And just to jump on the bandwagon, he's my favorite poet as well!

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Hee. That's great!