Once two is two,
Two twos are four,
Three twos are six
Four twos are eight
I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s how I learned my tables. I think of it as one of the many poems I learned in infant class.
‘No,’ says my father. ‘It’s not a poem, it doesn’t rhyme: it’s maths.’
‘True,’ I say. ‘But what about the rhythm and repetition?’ I begin to recite, ‘Once-two-is-two…’ and behind me, I hear the echo of my infant classmates. I have a flashback of our terrapin classroom, and remember how the waves of heat drifted up through the wire mesh guard around the storage heater; the runnels of rain dribbled down the outside of the windows, and Miss Johnson, in her pink tweed skirt and beige frilly shirt, bounced a wooden ruler along the rows of chalked squiggles on the wooden blackboard, keeping us in time. Was it really always winter when I was in the infants class?
‘That’s just a chant,’ Dad says.
‘Can’t a chant be a poem?’ I say.
Our discussion goes round familiar circles that draw in the proper poetry Dad grew up with. He’s not a big reader, but he knows what he likes, it’s what he calls traditional. He has an anthology that he can dip into and find a suitable response to anything I offer.
I argue that rhyming in poetry is actually quite modern. ‘It probably didn’t get to England until 1066, and not everyone approved of it. Even a couple of hundred years later there were people saying that proper poetry shouldn’t rhyme.’
‘Ah, but all the best poems do rhyme.’
I like discussing poems with Dad. I’m never going to change his mind, or he mine. That’s not why we return to our topic now and again. We stretch each other, coming, as we do from different standpoints. Sometimes we like the same poems, but not for the same reasons.
For one thing, I approach poems in much the same way I do a story. The ones I like best can be unpicked to reveal not just how they work, but when something else is going on, just below the surface. There might be a build up of symbols, of images or ideas. There might be tricks going on with vowels or consonants, clues that have been embedded in the text by the author. A story or poem that seemed one thing on the page might transform when heard. Sounds replicate or reflect each other, emphasis can shift, repetitions resonate…The variations are as limitless as the ideas and interests of their authors, and then the readers.
One of the first rules I learned about short story was the same one that poets understand: Every word must count. Each must work for its place in a text, not just because of its part in creating a sentence, but in the whole story.
Except that there never is a complete story with a piece of good prose. Each individual who reads or recites a text understands it in their own way, according to their experiences. For me, the joy of poetry and story is that the rules are never quite fixed. Yes, rules are important, and it’s a good idea to understand them, but if they become a formula, doesn’t the resulting text risk becoming as predictable as Once-Two-is-Two?