John Lennon’s Semi-Sensical Poetry and Prose, Illustrated with His Charming Drawings
Subtle critique of culture’s hypocrisies, wrapped in bewitching gibberish.
By Maria Popova
There is something singularly heartening about famous creators with secret talents, about discovering such little-known delights as William Faulkner’s Jazz Age art, Richard Feynman’s drawings, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, Rube Goldberg’s political art, Liberace’s culinary zest, Hans Christian Andersen’s sketches, and Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons. Among them, unbeknownst to many, was beloved Beatle John Lennon (October 9, 1940–December 8, 1980).
In His Own Write & A Spaniard in the Works (public library), released to commemorate Lennon’s 70th birthday with introductions by Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, collects his offbeat poetry and prose along with his charming drawings.
Lennon’s whimsical, semi-sensical writings fall somewhere between Lewis Carroll and Gertrude Stein. He has a particular penchant for unusual wordplay, inventing nonsensical twists on familiar phrases — “a goodbites sleep,” “one upon a tom,” “all of a surgeon” — inevitably leaving the reader to wonder whether there is a deeper meaning, perhaps a postmodernist or surrealist message, or it’s simply linguistic gibberish for the sake of diversion. Paul McCartney writes in the introduction:
There are bound to be thickheads who will wonder why some of it doesn’t make sense, and others who will search for hidden meanings.
“What’s a Brummer?”
“There’s more to ‘dubb owld boot’ than meets the eye.”
None of it has to make sense and if it seems funny then that’s enough.
Still, underneath the amusing and often perplexing writing lies a subtle undertone of cultural commentary on society’s hypocrisies. Take, for instance, the beginning of “Nicely Nicely Clive”:
To Clive Barrow it was just an ordinary day nothing unusual or strange about it, everything quite navel, nothing outstanley just another day but to Roger it was somthing special, a day amongst days … a red lettuce day … because Roger was getting married and as he dressed that morning he thought about the gay batchelor soups he’d had with all his pals. And Clive said nothing.
To Roger everything was different, wasn’t this the day his Mother had told him about, in his best suit and all that, grimming and shakeing hands, people tying boots and ricebudda on his car. To have and to harm … till death duty part … he knew it all off by hertz.
Lennon’s intentional substitute of “harm” for “hold” paints a portrait of the dark side of marriage and all the pain that can live under the hood of this cultural institution masquerading as pure bliss (which Susan Sontag so grimly termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings”), and his use of the word “duty” calls out the misguided mechanism by which dysfunctional marriages continue “to have and to harm” (perhaps, as Sontag observed, because such arrangements are “based on the principle of inertia.”)
Or take this short poem, titled “Good Dog Nigel”:
Arf, Arf, he goes, a merry sight,
Our little hairy friend,
Arf, Arf, upon the lampost bright
Arfing round the bend.
Nice dog! Goo boy,
Waggie tail and beg,
Clever Nigel, jump for joy
Because we’re putting you to sleep at three of the clock, Nigel.
Much of it, however, as McCartney points out, is simply fun — which is more than enough.
THE MOLDY MOLDY MAN
I’m a moldy moldy man
I’m moldy thru and thru
I’m a moldy moldy man
You would not think it true.
I’m moldy till my eyeballs
I’m moldy til my toe
I will not dance I shyballs
I’m such a humble Joe.
In His Own Write & A Spaniard in the Works is weird and wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with Yoko Ono’s equally delightful poems, drawings, and instructions for life.
Published January 27, 2014