Friday, March 18, 2005

Greetings from Fort Mudge

Mention the Seminole comical strip Pogo to l'homme moyen sensuel and if you get any reaction at all, it'll be "Oh, yeah, 'We have met the enemy and he is us' -- now get the goddamn microphone out of my face, I've got some sensuel to moy."

That catchphrase, which, admittedly, boy cartoonist Walt Kelly milked pretty hard in his sunset years, might be the only thing most people remember about ol' Pogo if they remember anything at all, and that's a damned shame. As a technician, Kelly's contribution to the cartoonist's craft is probably even greater than George Herriman's; Kelly's influence is just howlingly obvious in the way Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes characters moved, and how his strips were laid out -- hell, even in his use of vegetation as a framing device. Pioneering, too, was his characters' proscenium-breaking; when Albert Alligator, lighting his see-gar, reaches out and strikes his match on the panel border, you're seeing a form so confident in its maturity that it can afford to be playful.

Kelly's skill as an artist is unassailable. I mean, look at the detail in this next strip! Individual blades of grass! Wood grain! There's actual wood grain on the tree in the first panel! You know why Watterson hung up his spikes, right? It's because newspapers have shrunk the comic strip down to subatomic size; it's pointless to lavish the kind of attention Kelly gave his creations any more; your readers won't even know...

"You are a YOK!" I mean, what can you say?

It's in the realm of language that Kelly truly shone. His daily strip was a wonderful mangrove of puns and portmanteaux, all delivered in a disarming parody of Southern speech (Kelly was himself from Bridgeport, Connecticut -- not exactly a hotbed of Southern literary tradition), and his poetry and song lyrics were so rich with utterly effortless linguistic play that it's impossible not to nominate him as America's answer to Lewis Carroll.

Take Kelly's famous reworking of the "Deck the Halls" Christmas carol (the other thing l'homme might remember: "Deck us all with Boston Charlie/Walla Walla Wash., an' Kalamazoo...." In the liner notes to Songs of the Pogo, reissued in 2003 on Reaction Records, Mark Burstein places Kelly in the nonsense tradition of Carroll and James Joyce:
This is a poetic form that has come to be known as "Anguish Languish" (an "anguished" English language) and popularized by Howard L. Chace in his book of the same title in 1956. It is the substitution of words which, when read silently make no literal sense, but when read aloud take on the sounds and rhythms of another work. His "Ladle Red Rotten Hut" (Little Red Riding Hood) which starts out "Wants pawn term dare worsted ladle gull..." is a well-known classic of the genre.
I've found a Sunday strip in Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo where Kelly grabs the ball and runs all the way out of the stadium with it:

Howland Owl (the pompous intellectual): I been up all night thinkin'.
Churchy La Femme (the bon vivant and slightly dense, if goodhearted, turtle): Bully for you!
Owl: I've come up with an idea that will ee-clipse every blinding flash of inspired genius what I is ever had.
Churchy: What a coincidence!
Owl: You mean you is had an idea too?
Churchy: Yes yes yes! Like you say... a idea what unclips every blind flask of unspired geraniums what ever I is had.
Owl: I is had a most wonderful idea what will make us millionaires.
Churchy: A miracle! So is I! At the very same time.
Owl: I had mine at a quarter pas' ten.
Churchy: I had mine at ten oh two.
Owl: Mine is got the ingrediments of scintillating scientific achievement inherent in it.
Churchy: Mine is too! It got the ungreedy minks of single-eightin' sinus siftin' an' cheese mints inherited too!
Owl: Mine is the upshot of a college course I took.
Churchy: Mine is shot up from a coarse college too.
Owl: Mine is a triumphant elegant aurora of the intellect.
Churchy: Mine is a trumpetin' elephant all roarin' off the innerlick, too.
Owl: I is jes' had another great idea, a boon to mankind.
Churchy: Me too! I is ready to boom to mankind too.
Owl: Namely: To chunk you overboard (pushes Churchy into the swamp).
Churchy: I thought of it first (grabs Owl by the nose as he falls).
Owl (floating in the water): We shouldn't compete... We should pool our talents...
Churchy: Looks like we already is.

I mean, good god, was there ever a more economical demonstration of the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy? Somewhere in San Francisco, Griffy and Zippy tip their caps and hoist a bottle of Taco Sauce to Kelly's memory...

There was another area in which Kelly was a pioneer: Pogo was the first cartoon character drafted for a presidential election, the 1952 Eisenhower-Stevenson affair. While Kelly managed to make some fairly hilarious hay from the phenomenon, it wasn't until the 1956 replay that he began to cash in on it. In that year, along with Brill Building maven Norman Monath, he released the record album Songs of the Pogo, a collection of settings of his Carroll-esque song lyrics.

Most of these novelty songs don't very well stand the test of time, probably weren't all that great to begin with. But the ones that do, oh man are they great. My own favorite is "Lines Upon a Tranquil Brow," the first six of which are meditative, moody, fretful, all pensive suspended chords and spoken narration -- by Kelly himself:
Have you ever while pond'ring the ways of the morn,
Thought to save just a bit, just a drop in the horn;
To pour in the ev'ning or late afternoon
Or during the night when we're shining the moon?
Have you ever cried out while counting the snow
Or watching the tomtit warble hello....
And then there's a complete break in mood, a drunken bump-and-grind Dixieland band awakes and blatters:
Break out the cigars, this life is for squirrels [fermata]
We're off to the drugstore to whistle at girls?
Mighty hard to argue with, I must say.

American place-names are undeniably poetic. You get yourself a bellyful of Walt Whitman, of Carl Sandburg, of John Steinbeck, of Woodie Guthrie, and you're likely to appreciate a country that can give cities such euphonious names as Kalamazoo, Kankakee, Walla Walla, Waukegan, Waco, Tishimingo, Oswego... Snatch yourself a listen to Tom Waits' "Gun Street Girl" from Rain Dogs and you'll see just how incredibly evocative those place-names can be. Or hell, Chuck Berry...

Well, you've never heard anybody take a swan-dive and wallow in American place-names like you're about to. Walt whipped up a fight song for Pogo's 1956 Presidential bid. Ordinarily you'd expect a fight song to be the sort of thing that large crowds of people can sing together in football stadiums. But since Walt didn't really have that restriction, and because he never did anything halfway, he cooked up this astonishing stew of sheer, tongue-twisting, beautiful, baldfaced nonsense. Lewis Carroll ain't even a patch on this thing. Edward Lear can't even whistle it.

Just listen to this thing. "Wheeling, West Virginia, with everything that's in ya..." It just doesn't get better than this. Lyrics below. Warbled with gusto by Walt Himself...
Go Go Pogo

As Maine go oh so Pogo go Key Largo,
Otsego to Frisco go to Fargo,
Okeefenokee playin' possum on a Pogo
Stick around and see the show go over

Landalive a band o' jive will blow go Pogo
I go you go who go to go Polly voo go,
From Caravan Diego, Waco and Oswego,
Tweedle de he go she go we go me go Pogo.

Atascadero, Wheeler, Barrow,
Someplace in Mexico
Delaware, Ohio, and you don't need the text to go
Wheeling, West Virginia
With ev'rything that's in ya.
Down the line you'll see the shine
From Oregon to Caroline!

Oh, eenie meenie minie Kokomo go Pogo.
Tishimingo, sing those lingo, whistling go.
Shamokin to Hoboken, Chenango to Chicango
It's golly, I go goo goo goin' go go Pogo!
We're not privileged to know where ol' Walt is now, o' course, but let's hope it's somewhere like this:


Lance Mannion said...

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy's horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy's Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman's Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

.... Steven Vincent Benet

Neddie said...


Anonymous said...

I agree that Walt Kelly is the archetypal American cartoonist. But it seems to me that the blades of grass and wood grains take a back seat to the dialog, which is funny as hell if you're the sort of person who pays attention to all the possible meanings, and the expressions on the characters' faces. Albert and Churchy, especially, have left me in stitches with a well-chosen word or two and a mug for the camera.

Anonymous said...

I simply stopped visiting the "Funny Pages" after Pogo and the gang left town.


Anonymous said...

i started reading Pogo at age 8 in 1986. for some reason, it didn't make much sense until i picked it up again maybe ten years later. like Calvin and Hobbes, i think my appreciation grows with age.

Vache Folle said...

Pogo almost always makes me nearly wet my pants. I once humiliated myself in a busy doctor's office waiting room by laughing so hard at a Pogo book that I wept openly and groaned.

Thank you for this post. It has made my day.

Anonymous said...

One more influence of Pogo: The Beach Boys and songwriter John Phillips


Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you
Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego baby why don't we go

Off the Florida Keys
There's a place called Kokomo
That's where you wanna go to get away from it all

Bodies in the sand
Tropical drink melting in your hand
We'll be falling in love
To the rhythm of a steel drum band
Down in Kokomo

Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you
To Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego baby why don't we go

Ooo I wanna take you down to Kokomo
We'll get there fast
And then we'll take it slow
That's where we wanna go
Way down to Kokomo

To Martinique, that Monserrat mystique

We'll put out to sea
And we'll perfect our chemistry
By and by we'll defy a little bit of gravity

Afternoon delight
Cocktails and moonlit nights
That dreamy look in your eye
Give me a tropical contact high
Way down in Kokomo

Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you
To Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego baby why don't we go

Ooo I wanna take you down to Kokomo
We'll get there fast
And then we'll take it slow
That's where we wanna go
Way down to Kokomo

Port Au Prince I wanna catch a glimpse

Everybody knows
A little place like Kokomo
Now if you wanna go
And get away from it all
Go down to Kokomo

Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you
To Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego baby why don't we go

Ooo I wanna take you down to Kokomo
We'll get there fast
And then we'll take it slow
That's where we wanna go
Way down to Kokomo

Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you
To Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego baby why don't we go

Ooo I wanna take you down to Kokomo

onetime pogo and joyce scholar,

Anonymous said...

In some of the (relatively) recent reprints of Pogo books, I've been looking for an exchange between Owl and Churchy in which Church is extolling the beauty of spring, with the treefrogs, his favorite birds, singing in the trees. Owl says treefrogs are not birds, and Churchy points out his credentials, as a close relative of reptiles and (oog) amphibians. Owl says that Churchy is a turtle, practically a armadillo, and a battle ensues. Anyone know where I could find this text? And my personal favorite is "Who Killed Cock Robin", in which Albert, (I believe), falls apart over the tragedy and indignity of it all. I go Pogo!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece. Often I quote these two immortal lines (if I may)... 1) "It's been proven that nine kings beat six of a kind" and 2) "The queen was in the courtyard, hanging by her toes; along came the north wind, and that's the way she froze."


Larraine said...

I always read Pogo - even when I didn't fully understand it - my favorite all time quote of course:

"We have met the enemy and he is us."
I was probably not yet in high school but I knew what it meant.

Unknown said...

personally, i preferred fremont the bug's candidacy, because who could ever resist his platform:

"jes' fine!"

now, that's america!

Dave said...

One of my favotite Pogo verses:

"The start's the thing: the song to sing is not the end or yet the way.

"The song to sing must be the start:
so bold, so new, so brave, so smart."

Anonymous said...

I loves me some Pogo, yes I do. For years my closest friends and I spoke Pogo -- from "Octopots done got me" to naming kittens Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred . . . Oh, the days . . .

And speaking of great American place names, let us not forget Lowell George's "Willin'":
I've been from Tucson to Tucumcari,
Tehachapi to Tonopah
Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed

Anonymous said...

...and let us not forget,
"Roar a roar for Norah,
Norah Alice in the night,
For she has seen Aurora
Borealis burning bright.

A furore for our Norah!
And applaud auroras seen:
O where throughout the summer
has our Borealis been?"

Anonymous said...

Ah,Pogo, where are you when we need you ¿ The Gument has no knowledge of the Fort Mudge or where to find it....and we be adrift.....

zencomix said...

Nice tribute!

Porkypine: What did Ol' Senator Bullfrog have to say this time, Pogo?

Pogo: He gimme speech No. 44A.

Porkypine: Mm?

Pogo: Y'know, the one where he quotes Samson..."With the jawbone of an ass... I have slain a thousand..."...Bills, he means...

Porkypine: Well...why not?....He's richly endowed with the proper equipment.

Anonymous said...

"Hmph! Let the stew figger it out."

JD said...

Beautifully done.

Anonymous said...

You made my day - to hear Walt Kelly singing the Go-Pogo song, which I didn't know existed. Walt Kelly's dialogue for Pogo and friends is pure poetry of the right kind. I re-read my tattered omnibus copies of Pogo about once every five years, they are good for the soul.

Anonymous said...

I love Pogo but good old Krazy Kat still reins supreme in my world.

I love the poetry and jazz of kk.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with Pogo, was devastated when Kelly died, but at least I'm a Charter Member of the Jack Acid Society and have a copy of the J.A.S. Black Book autographed by Pogo himself! It's my most cherished book.

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