Too Many Daves
Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel)
Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?
Well, she did. And that wasn’t a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, “Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!” she doesn’t get one.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!
This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves’
As you can imagine, with so many Daves.
And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn
And one of them Hoos-Foos. And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot. And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shadrack. And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy. And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt. Another one Moon Face.
Another one Marvin O’Gravel Balloon Face.
And one of them Ziggy. And one Soggy Muff.
One Buffalo Bill. And one Biffalo Buff.
And one of them Sneepy. And one Weepy Weed.
And one Paris Garters. And one Harris Tweed.
And one of them Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt
And one of them Oliver Boliver Butt
And one of them Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate …
But she didn’t do it. And now it’s too late.
Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
If you ever find yourself trying to explain to someone that most essential of poetic qualities, what I call “poetic depth” (which I define as “miles per word“) — and reader, a time will come when you’ll need to explain it to someone, oh yes, few elements in poetry require a better understanding — then “Too Many Daves” is your Exhibit A.
But really, Mr. Geisel? Is that the route on which you wish to take your restless, impatient, easily-distracted — and sometimes very young — reader? A list of 23 names? It is. It is. Why shouldn’t it be? From Bovary to Prospero, Bloom to Rabbit, Jekyll to Hyde, Holden, Huckleberry and Humbert — names can carry us a very long way.
We can safely say of “Too Many Daves” that no English poem of similar length has been so densely peopled; exactly one line per character when we include the loving, yoo-hooing, regretful Mrs. McCave. In fact, there are 25 characters in “Too Many Daves,” because Mr. McCave, Dave Sr., is working double-shifts to support the large family; or else maybe he’s recently, and happily, deceased (or wishing he was).
Perhaps the most revealing choice of words in the poem is “she wishes that, when they were born, / She had named one…,” as opposed to something like, “when each was born,” or “at the time of each child’s birth.” In other words, the language suggests, or at least allows — which makes sense given their mimeo-monikers — that all 23 Daves were born at the same time; and maybe the McCaves have a legal claim against a fertility clinic and Papa McCave is living large in the Bahamas and drinking Yama-Mamas with a family named the McRamas (or even the O’Bamas?).
Viginti-tretuplets. Twenty-three gene-sharers. But Sunny Jim is no Moonface. At least those two certainly don’t hang out together, not like Buffalo Bill and Biffalo Buff, or Stuffy and Stinky, those paired humiliations to poor sophisticated elder brother, Harris Tweed.
A name like Marvin O’Gravel Balloon Face rockets us through the deepest space of possibility, because remember, no one knows her children better than Mrs. McCave, and there must be a reason she imagines such an inflated cognomen, or what you might call an inflappellation, for Dave number 12. The last-born, Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate, by the way (and maybe Mrs. McCave herself?), is an avid reader of Nabokov.
“Too late,” the poem ends. Too late — and too bad. Of a single name, we learn, is born a individual character (23 in this case). So, too, with words. Most writing, most poetry, and 99% of blogs let’s be honest, have way too many Daves. We “yoo-hoo” for a thought and they all come running. Weepy Weeds and Soggy Muffs are nothing in popular prose but drab diminished Daves, the same words serving multiple purposes.
Poetic depth occurs, you might say, when poets treat words as if they were their own children — the way Updike cared for his words — or when they take the time, like Flaubert, to observe the precise characteristics of a thing before assigning it its proper name. And if naming everything Dave is “not a smart thing to do,” the ever-revising poet (20 years to finish “The Moose,” O wonderful Ms Bishop!) will know that the paradise of poetic depth (and why else live?) often exists between a Ziggy and a Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt, and you’d better take the time to get it right.