I have always had a fascination for words and the images they evoke. I like poetry because of the images created by clever and careful use of words. I attempt to write poetry for the same reason. The ultimate objective of poetry is to depict intensely felt emotions and abstract philosophical thoughts. To realise this, the poet has to employ the vehicle of carefully chosen words which evoke visual and sensory images. These words are spontaneous with the power of vivid description.
A writer of the 1930s, James Thurber was a genius at creating spectacular verbal images. “On bedside tables across America, stacked next to Bibles, were copies of his collection The Thurber Carnival and his fictionalised autobiography, My Life and Hard Times, for a few belly laughs during dark nights of the soul.(1)” My own well thumbed copy of the Thurber Carnival was acquired from the English Book stall, near the Max Planck Institute in Garching, near Munich. His word images and drawings have given me intense pleasure through recurrent reading.
Thurber’s “secret, surrealist landscapes of his youth had many strange figures: the old lady who was always up in the air, the husband who did not seem to be able to put his foot down, the man who lost his head during a fire but was still able to run out of the house yelling, a skeleton unlocking a lock, the young lady who was … a soiled dove. His literal images of a man tied up at the office or of a girl who was all ears are comic.”(2)
“The New Natural History” presents a whole new way of seeing, by the literal, pictorial representation of metaphorical or abstract words and phrases. Thurber draws pictures of “a semi-edible vegetable,” the “Arpeggio;” “a bare-faced lie;” “a trochee encountering a spondee;” and “an upstart rising from a clump of Johnny-Come-Lately.” The visual images for common words include a carrot-like vegetable called a “scabbard,” an animal with a toothy-pointed back called a “metatarsal,” and a snake-like creature which is a “serenade (3).”
Thurber’s fictional characters are as colourful as his words. In the hilarious sketch titled “The Black Magic of Barney Haller” in The Thurber Carnival, he describes his hired man, whom he believes “traffics with devil” and make lightning and thunder follow him. Barney says cryptic things like “Bime by I go hunt grotches in de voods,” (4) and “We go to the garrick now and become warbs.” Thurber is convinced that despite his sturdy, teutonic looks, Barney is a practitioner of black magic and is capable of morphing himself into strange beings. Thurber is afraid that Barney would render him into a warb or conjure up a grotch. It is only later that Thurber realises that grotches are crotches where the branches will spread out from the main trunk of the peach tree or that warbs are wasps to be cleared in the garage. As the story ends, Thurber expresses regret for having let Barney go since his new man is not so good at removing the wasps from his garage.
In the story “ What do you mean, it was brillig?” his maid Della takes unfettered freedom with English words. “They are here with the reeves,” means somebody was bringing Christmas wreaths. In describing her family to Thurber, she says that “she has three brothers and that one of them works into a garage and another works into an incinerator where they burn the refuge. The one that works into the incinerator has been working into it since the armitage”, meaning armistice (5). About Thurber’s illness Della says that “His mind works so fast his body can’t keep up with it,”
Mrs Ulgine Burrows of the “quacking voice and braying laughter” appears in the “Catbird Seat”. She is disliked by her colleagues because she is given to strange expressions like “Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?”(7), expressions borrowed from Rugby games commentator.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is Thurber’s fictional story about a man is forever lost to reality. I can empathise with Walter Mitty who would go on a trip merely on hearing a suggestive word. He lives in an extended reverie consisting of situations in which he pictures himself as a heroic figure; a world renowned surgeon conducting a risky surgery, a pilot raining bombs on the enemy, and a martyr facing death by shooting. It is very clear that these manifestations reflect escape from the colourless and humiliating ordinariness of his real life where he is a hen-pecked husband.
Thurber’s real life characters are equally colourful, or he makes them colourful through his writing. I realised this when I read “The Years with Ross”, Thurber’s biographical sketches of Harold Ross, the legendary founder-editor of the New Yorker magazine. It chronicles the restless genius of Ross, who brought together in 1925, an extraordinary cavalcade of talent, including Thurber, to bring out a magazine which focused on New York city’s vibrant social and cultural life. The New Yorker became known for stories, essays, and sharply drawn profiles. The drawings were indeed funny. There were reviews of movies, books and theatre. The book is also full of wistful and often hilarious description of Ross’s management style, which is unique and at the same time frustrating for those who were managed. Ross was well known for his aggressive editing style. Thurber wrote (5) that “when you first gazed, appalled, upon an uncorrected proof of one of your stories or articles, each margin had a thicket of queries and complaints — one writer got a hundred and forty-four on one profile.”
Ross was compulsive about fact-checking and employed a pool of fact checkers with the ardent hope to bring out each issue without a single mistake. His “wistful hope of getting out a magazine each week without a single mistake,” led one fact-checker to remark that “if you mention the Empire State Building … Ross isn’t satisfied it’s still there until we call up and verify it”(1).
The cartoonist Aravindan had the same comical genius as Thurber had. Many of his drawings were inspired by the images that certain words or sentences evoked. A girl is sitting and planting her eyes in a field, (in Malayalam ‘planting ones eyes’ means looking). Another equally bizarre image would be when this girl throws her eyes at someone, which again only means that she was looking at someone.
One of Aravindan’s cartoons showed a mad artist committing suicide by laying himself on a floor near the wall on which had drawn a picture of an approaching train. The following poem, “Train” was inspired by that cartoon.
The mad artist drew two vertical lines on the wall of the room, his prison Lines receding into the distance, converging. He knew perspective! To him it looked like a rail track and inspired by that insight, drew a train on the track with engine puffing smoke he thought could hear the chug chug of the fast approaching train and laid himself down on the ground with his head near the wall waiting for the train and certain release.
(1) Jill Abramson: A Wise And Zany Editor: The Legendary Harold Ross, NPR, December 19, 2011 (2) The Secret Life of James Thurber in The Thurber Carnival p42–46. (3) Catherine McGehee Kenney: The World of James Thurber: An Anatomy of Confusion, Dissertation 1974, Loyola University, Chicago.Thurber Carnival (4) The Black Magic of Barney Haller, Thurber Carnival p137–140. (5) What Do You Mean It Was Brillig? Thurber Carnival p53–55. (6) The Catbird Seat, Thurber Carnival p22–29 (7) Years with Ross, p63