The unusual personality of Edward Lear, the quirky writer of The Owl and the Pussycat and other “nonsense” limericks, has been celebrated throughout this year as 12th May marked his 200th birthday.
Born in Holloway, North London in 1812, Lear suffered asthma, bronchitis, depression and epilepsy which many have contributed the melancholy tinge to his work.
But his work is fun. He created many fantasy worlds, fantastic creatures such as the ‘Quangle Wangle’ and introduced fun new words like “runcible spoon” into the English language.
Michael Rosen, children’s author and broadcaster for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Word of Mouth’ toured throughout the year celebrating the bicentenary.
He says that there is an incredibly diverse poetry scene in north London: from commemorations of past poets like Keats House, performances of new work, some in traditional styles or at poetry slams performed with music or dance.
Rosen who sometimes uses Yiddish words in his poetry which English people are unfamiliar with, said: “The funny thing about ‘runcible’ is that it had no meaning. Lear used it in very different ways. I think he liked the sound of it.”
The great thing about creating new words, or neologisms is that once they’re in the English language people want to know what they mean. Lear’s ‘Runcible spoon’ caused years of intrigue and is now generally accepted to be the term for a three-pronged fork which is spoon-shaped.
Dean Atta who performs all over the country at part of a Poetry collective called Rubix from Camden, will use slang and other influences such as Jamaican patois in his poetry.
He said: “Some words are not in the English dictionary but are in people’s spoken vocabulary. I’m happy to use it if my audience knows what I mean.”
Atta recently had a surge of interest in his work when his spoken word poem in memory of Stephen Lawrence went viral online.
When I first spoke to him in April about Edward Lear he told me he’d never written a limerick himself.
“It makes me think I should teach limericks at workshops, they’re quite cool. They are quite accessible in that they are easy to recite.”
Since then, Atta has trialled limerick workshops and discovered a good response from children
Rosen addeds: “I think limericks are a popular art form. People love the neatness and punch of them. They particularly like them if they’re about people or places they know.”
Atta is brought into English lessons to teach poetry to help prepare students for their GCSEs and A-levels and also to help those who are learning English as a second language.
Lisandro Tavares is a young spoken word artist who performs under the name Poetika around London at spoken word events and at North London venues such as the Buffalo Bar near Highbury & Islington station.
He believes poetry should be taught as a vocation in schools and that it has the power to create a link between teachers and pupils.
“A lot of people are webtroverts, meaning they’re disconnected in life and can only connect and express themselves through words online,” he said.
“What you think, to what you write down, to how you say it is all interlinked. If teachers ask children to write down what they want to be in life, then when they express it, that’s poetry because it comes from the heart.”
Expression of the self was present in all of Lear’s works. A lot of his limericks focus on eccentric individuals.
Michael Rosen said: “It seems as if Lear was in some ways a very unhappy man and often travelled, perhaps to escape from his illnesses and emotions.”
His Book of Nonsense published in 1867 popularised limericks and included his most famous piece, The Owl and the Pussycat and the main theme was about the joy in adventure and travelling which probably reflects the happiness he was searching for.
It is a testament to Lear that he still entertains people today and that is why his bicentenary is being celebrated near his birthplace and worldwide.
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few think him pleasant enough
Owl and the Pussycat
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon.
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand.
They danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.