Thursday, June 29, 2017

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955)

I decided to subscribe to Poetry magazine, because I wanted to support poetry and poets.   Plus, I got a free canvas bag with a flying horse on it that is rad.   I used to think poetry - particularly new poetry - was mostly pretentious emperor's-new-clothes-ish bunkum.  Now after two months of the magazine, I will change "mostly" into "from time to time."  Each volume I've received in the mail has some poems that make me happy, and some poems that make me make a "what the fuck" face (that is, if someone were spying on my reading, which I assume they are not).  But I think that's poetry.  It's not always supposed to make sense, and it's not always supposed to speak to you in some meaningful way at that very moment.  Some poems have to age with you.  Other poems, you age out of.

In the first Poetry magazine, there were poems by  D. Gilson (here he is and he's really cute), he had two poems about children's literature and what happens to famous characters when they are all grown up.  One was about Where The Wild Things Are's Max, which was really funny and cute and interesting (although since roaring into American culture in 1963, Max has become ubiquitous, and perhaps less shocking as a choice for a poem;).  I liked that poem, but I also really liked his poem "Harold and the Purple Crayon" which you can find here:  You can read the poem yourself and come up with your own conclusions; I'm not here to debate the merits of the poem, other than to say I liked this one equally well (and thought Harold as subject matter was more interesting).  But I did suddnely realize that I had never, ever actually read Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Not as a child; not as a children's librarian. I knew the story, or at least an outline of the story - boy with purple crayon draws his world.  I vaguely sort of thought it was the same as Duck Amuck, the famous Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny cartoon.  But it's absolutely not.

 That Daffy Duck cartoon was surreal; it's weird and disturbing and bizarre, and in the surprise end (SPOILER ALERT) Bugs Bunny, the trickster figure of the 20th century is God.  Conversely, in Harold, little bald headed Harold is master of his own fate.  He draws his own world; there is no trickster artist hovering over him, painting pratfalls and pitfalls.   Harold does not live in the same world as Bugs Bunny; rather, he lives in the same world as Invictus:  "I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul." Harold creates a scary monster; he also creates friends. He creates a protector.  He creates beauty; he also creates danger.  He falls; he gets lost in the big city (how many artists have been lost in the big city, am I right?).  Following him, all along, is his first creation, the moon, a reminder of where he came from, and also there at the end when he returns home to the safety of his own bed.

Or - let's say I wanted to get really meta right here:  there is a God watching over Harold and directing his every move, and his name is Crockett Johnson; so the artist is god over his own work.; free choice doesn't really exist for Harold; his world, which is powered by illusion, is also an illusion.  Children's literature is neat.

Harold and the Purple CrayonHarold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In purple crayon, perhaps in another book, Harold writes "I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul." Except he's not. That's an illusion. Crockett Johnson is in charge of Harold's fate. And that's art. Or religion. Or Nietzsche. Perhaps everything. And nothing.

As an intellectual exercise, it's an interesting book. As an exercise in storytelling, it's an interesting book. But as a children's book you want to read to your four year old nephew or a group of kindergartners, it is not a particularly interesting book. And who wants to discuss nihilism or art theory with your four year old nephew anyway?

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