“A serpent who had to sing…”

I hope it’s okay to reprint here an entire poem from Theodore Roethke. It’s silly, but often so am I. I can’t find the copyright. I suspect it was written in the 1940’s. This comes from my 1958 Doubleday edition of “Words for the Wind.”

Carolyn Kizer’s obituary in the New York Times set me off on a poetry reading binge, including her teacher and one of my family’s favorites, Theodore Roethke. .

I think I see his influence in in her fine work. My father read Roethke to me as a child and I still hear his voice rolling through Roethke’s words, both in the kid’s poems he read to me before I started school and in the more serious Roethke poems I read as I grew up.

“Dirty Dinky” was a childhood standby, but “The Serpent” has grown on me over the years. It’s one of my favorites today, even if cataloged as a childhood poem. Maybe I am still growing up — or wanting, as I near retirement, to be a reformed singing serpent.

If you want an immediate contrast with this poem, I would recommend reading Roethke’s In a Dark Time.” It begins: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see…”

The Serpent

There was a Serpent who had to sing.
There was. There was.
He simply gave up Serpenting.
Because. Because.
He didn’t like his Kind of Life;
He couldn’t find a proper Wife;
He was a Serpent with a soul;
He got no Pleasure down his Hole.
And so, of course, he had to Sing,
And Sing he did, like Anything!
The Birds, they were, they were Astounded;
And various Measures Propounded
To stop the Serpent’s Awful Racket:
They bought a Drum. He wouldn’t Whack it.
They sent, —you always send, —to Cuba
And got a Most Commodious Tuba;
They got a Horn, they got a Flute,
But Nothing would suit.
He said, “Look, Birds, all this is futile:
I do not like to Bang or Tootle.”
And then he cut loose with a Horrible Note
That practically split the Top of his Throat.
“You see,” he said, with a Serpent’s Leer,
“I’m Serious about my Singing Career!”
And the Woods Resounded with many a Shriek
As the Birds flew off to the end of Next Week.

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