Rhythm and Margaret Wise Brown

Marcy Erb, a poet/illustrator turned me on to a poem this morning:

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In Memoriam John Coltrane

by Michael Stillman

“Listen to the coal
rolling, rolling through the cold,
steady rain, wheel on

wheel, listen to the 

turning of the wheels this night

black as coal dust, steel

on steel, listen to
these cars carry coal, listen
to the coal train roll.”

Doesn’t it remind you of Margaret Wise Brown’s “Two Little Trains”?

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 11.08.05 AM

Here’s an excerpt:

“The moon shone down on a gleaming track,

And the two little trains going West;

And they hurried along and heard the song

Of a black man singing in the West.

Look down, look down that long steel track

Where you and I must go;

That long steel track and strong cross bars,

Before we travel home.”

Aside from the variation in meter, I’m thinking you could insert Stillman’s poem into “Two Little Trains” and no one would be the wiser. They are so jazzy!

In “Two Little Trains,” the jazz rhythm that propels the trains and the reader forward is powerful. The string of slightly changing “O” sounds in “moon shone down on” and the internal rhyme of “along and heard the song,” and repetition of “look down, look down” strengthen the momentum. The religious imagery is also exceptionally strong. The reference to a “black man singing” brings to mind a spiritual. Then there’s the long steel track with a cross bar, the imperative “where you and I must go” (death), and the final comforting phrase “before we travel home” (also death, but not a bad place). 

There’s a reason MWB is still in print, folks. She was brilliant!

If you’d like to see a brief analysis of Stillman’s poem, you can find it at Stephen Cramer’s Tongue & Groove blog.

Happy National Poetry Month!

14 thoughts on “Rhythm and Margaret Wise Brown

      • Marcy Erb says:

        Thank you so much, Jilanne and Laurel! I am honored and appreciative of your vote of confidence. I love it when connections between art and poetry spur more connections – to books and news articles and more. I have a young nephew and I plan to get MWB’s Two Little Trains, (read it first and then) mail it to him! Thanks again!

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          Oh, if he responds to it the way my son did, he’ll be reading it every night before he goes to sleep.

          re: connections: I love how the mind works. Yesterday, I had a strange visual connection moment. I walked past a pine tree with it’s exuberant spring growth (despite our lack of rain) and saw hundreds of pine cones spurting new needles out their tops. My thoughts went immediately to King Julian (the ring-tailed lemur) of the Penguins of Madagascar, one of my son’s favorite movies. They looked just like King Julian wearing his royal headdress. I wanted to take a picture of the pine cones but I didn’t have time. I laughed out loud when I saw them and the thought still makes me smile. Sorry for the digression. 😀

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      In a post about poetry and the brain from oh-so-long-ago, I mentioned that listening to poetry or music stimulates the same area of the brain. So please, read it aloud even if no one else is listening! 😀

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, give it a gander. I think you’ll be surprised what you find. It has a much longer line and is more complex than “Good Night, Moon.” But it wouldn’t hurt to go back and re-read “Good Night, Moon” for its cadence—not for complexity, LOL. I think you’ll find the bedtime rhythm there.

  1. cricketmuse says:

    Sadly MWB’s line about the West would not pass the politically correct standards imposed on children’s writers today. But she hasn’t been yanked off the shelf yet, has she?

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      This is a multilayered question, isn’t it? The story was first published in 1949, so I’m thinking that her use of the word “black” instead of “negro” or “colored” was pretty forward thinking. It also kept the meter of the line in the right rhythm. “Black” is still used as an adjective, usually not as a noun, because African-American should be reserved for those who are new immigrants from Africa (yes, there are those who think otherwise). Now, there is yet another layer, the question of racial stereotype of a black man singing. Proper usage, in this case, is difficult to tease out, but I prefer to think she meant to use this image respectfully. Is it OK for only those of African-American descent to refer to a black man singing? If you go down that path, it binds everyone. So I would argue that this book passes the “ages well with time” test. And I don’t see anyone yanking her off the shelves—ever. And if you check out her background, I think you’ll find her lifestyle to have been fairly Bohemian. So with the little I know about her (don’t really know her political leanings), I could argue that she was fairly progressive.

      • cricketmuse says:

        I tend to wince when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird when referring to the “n” word. It fit the time period, yet leaves that “just committed a faux pa in public” feeling afterwards.

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