Though I can’t remember their names, I liked my English teachers at Long Beach Poly High. They both had us read plays aloud in class, and I can still hear some 11th grade boy crying “What, you egg! Young fry of treachery!” We were reading 1984, too (this was in 1951, when 1984 seemed like the distant future), and one of the boys “translated” Lady Macbeth’s dagger speech into Newspeak. In twelfth grade English we read Idylls of the King, among other things, and some of us started writing a parody of it, in which due to shoddy construction by a corrupt contractor, a castle wall fell into the sea, killing some royal who had been doing a yoga headstand by it.
The 12th grade teacher had us writing a poem each week in a different form: haiku, tanka, quatrain, etc.
One of my poems had been:
The poet catches wingéd bits of thought
And pins them with his pen upon a page.
After a while I began to chafe under the weekly restrictions (the same thing happened years later when I took harmony) and I submitted this:
I amputate each struggling thought from an unwilling brain,
I tromp it with trochaic feet and cause it endless pain.
I stretch it out to make five lines or cram it into four
And when I’m done I’ve got a bunch of words and nothing more.
The teacher was also in charge of the school literary annual. She said she’d like to put both poems in it but pointed out that since the second one was in iambic meter, I should change it to “tromp it with iambic feet.” I protested that you can’t tromp with iambic feet, they sound like ostriches in ballet shoes, but to no avail. I complained to my mother, who wrote this note to the teacher.
The worm of thought shakes off his winter clothes
His winter prose
And off into the air he goes,
A poet butterfly.
The teacher, with her sharp didactic pen
Removes the wings and lo
He is a worm again.
The teacher was visibly upset when she read it, but...the poem went into the literary annual her way.
After my parents and I moved back to Berkeley, my mother, Malvina Reynolds, became well known as a songwriter (“Little Boxes,” “Magic Penny” and others), and years later I started writing songs myself. One will be part of Meg Mackay and Billy Philadelphia’s cabaret show “A Little Cole in Your Stocking” at the Aurora Theater this week. The show will be mostly Cole Porter with a few seasonal songs by other songwriters, including “Mrs. Claus” which I wrote with San Francisco composer Candy Forest.