A grandfather's postcard poems

My father was a great believer in the Postal Service, and when his grandchildren were young, his postcards to them arrived almost daily.

They were plain white postcards, never the photo variety, so there was plenty of room to write on both sides, and from edge to edge. What he wrote was almost always nonsense verse, with titles such as The Mother Of All French Fries and Reasons To Sneeze.

I keep them, now that my father is gone and my children are grown, in a couple of file boxes under a bed and pull them out occasionally to remind myself of that time. They have almost nothing to do with reality, and yet they are the reality that survives. On a postcard from 1985, my oldest child is still a two-year-old hunting for jelly beans with his entourage:

Jamie Conniff took a ride

With six monkeys by his side,

Fourteen leopards out ahead,

Sharp of fang with eyes of red ...

My youngest, from a 1997 postcard, is eight years old and birdlike:

Clare paints her hair to look like wings

Because that lets her fly

Over the hills at break of day

Into the by-and-by.

Animals were my father's usual theme, as they are in many verses and stories for children. He wrote about monarch butterflies, singing mice, spitting camels, cats and dogs, a living conch picked up on the beach and tossed back into the water ("Two passing gulls that saw it hissed, / Went diving for it, but they missed"), and the occasional snow leopard.

Animals are a natural topic in childhood, when we are sorting out big questions about what we are, what we should or shouldn't eat, what might possibly eat us and, of course, what might be lurking under the bed to do so at this moment.

For Ben, age six, my father wrote:

Bears don't scare me!

I'm too big: I make noises like a pig!

I make noises like an owl:

You should hear me hoot and howl!

But the power of animals to inspire feelings of strangeness, wonder and delight had somehow not faded for my father, any more than it had for his grandchildren. Or maybe he was simply recovering a natural sense of awe after the long forgetfulness of his working life. At times he relived his own childhood fears - for instance, in a poem about a vicious chow dog the family kept ("Minsing's evil yellow eye / Rolled from sky to earth to sky").

My father had taught writing to college students, inculcating them in The Elements Of Style by William Strunk Jr and E. B. White, with its emphasis on plain language, orderliness, short, simple sentences and a close regard for the reader's perspective. His mantra was "Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite", and the programme he ran had the unfortunately Orwellian name "Prose Control".

But in retirement, he seemed to chuck all that and cram the page with whatever winged through his mind at the moment. He wrote not as James C.G. Conniff, ponderous and professorial, but as JimBaba, crackpot elder extraordinaire.

As a writer myself, still firmly in the realm of Strunk and White, I sometimes envied his freewheeling disdain for prose control. But it could also be disconcerting. His children's verse often veered into bizarre literary or political territory. It was hard to explain to my daughter, Clare, why her stuffed bear would have a habit of eating "its weight in honey combs / And books of Seamus Heaney's poems".

Likewise, Boomba-Zoomba went to sea In a waterlogged snot-green boat (He had no choice - he'd been reading Joyce), And he took along a goat.

I sometimes suggested edits to my father, little tweaks that might save the gems and omit the outright lunacy. "Do you think a three- year-old will get that reference to Edwin Meese?" I wondered mildly. (Of the man who was the US Attorney-General then, my father had written, "Ronald Reagan pulls his strings / Mousey Meesey dances, sings.") "And, um, what about this line urging Ben to 'give him a good one with your gat'?" (I looked it up. "Gat, noun: Handgun.") "Maybe 'bat' would be more Ben's style?" And so much less of a felony.

He always professed a willingness to be edited. He had been a published poet as a young man, and he could recite many great poems from memory. At his funeral his former students - not English scholars but ageing accountants, journalists, municipal clerks - remarked that lines of Milton or Keats that he had had them memorise still surfaced decades later in their minds. Poetry was the lost ambition of his youth.

When in his 80s, my father hoped I would salvage his better self and make these poems publishable. I wanted to do so, because there were times when they lit up with the charm and zaniness of Roald Dahl or Edward Lear. But then I would point out a line or two in need of minor editing and he would immediately write a whole new poem from that point. "No, no, it's just those two lines. The rest of it is fine," I'd say. "OK," he'd agree and unleash another torrent of verse, until I thought maybe it was time to get back to my other work.

Often the poems went on too long or made too little sense, and they were also overwhelming in their abundance, piling up like leaves in the corners of cabinets, sometimes unread. The postcards still turn up unexpectedly here and there around the house:

I like to watch the frogs bounce by;

They're bulgy-eyed and jumpy.

The young are green as a parrot's wing

While the old are green but grumpy.

I file them away. In their time, they gave the writer and his readership the enduring pleasure of words, rhythm and rhyme, and of animals in all their wonder. The postcard poems also reminded my children that a somewhat odd grandparent, somewhere at the other end of the mailbox, loved them dearly. And that is enough.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline 'A grandfather's postcard poems'. Print Edition | Subscribe