I write prose, not poetry. I enjoy reading poetry, even reciting it aloud, but writing poetry is not for me.
Except for very rare occasions.
“Puff, the Magic Dragon” beguiled me to take one of my infrequent stabs at poetry.
Based on a poem written in 1959 by Leonard Lipton, the song was recorded in 1962 by the famous singing trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. It is one of the most popular and endearing songs ever recorded.
But it ends so sadly!
The song tells the tale of Puff, a frolicking dragon, and his friendship with a little boy, Jackie Paper. Jackie brought Puff gifts of string and sealing wax and “other fancy stuff.” Together they sailed the seas; princes would bow to them and pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name.
But, alas, although dragons live forever, little boys grow up. Jackie stopped seeing Puff, and the dragon crawled into his cave, forlorn.
For years I felt depressed by that ending. Why can’t Puff’s tale end more happily? I wondered.
This started me thinking about the stories my father told me when I was a child. He didn’t read to me much, but he was full of stories about his youthful years, wonderfully funny stories about teenage misadventures, stories that usually ended with the warning, “Don’t ever let me catch you doing that!”
I learned to tell stories from my father; I owe my career as an author to those tales he told me when I was a child.
Then I began to think about the tales I told my children when they were youngsters. As they began to grow, we would sit together in the evenings and go through children’s books as they learned to read.
I remembered wonderful books, such as Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” and “Rain Makes Applesauce” by Julian Scheer (who was NASA’s first public relations director!).
And I realized that children’s stories are a way of showing your offspring what the world is all about.
Being a parent is a heavy responsibility, and parents need all the help they can get — even if it’s just some illustrated book you read to them, or a song about a dragon.
One of the scariest moments in my life came when I first realized that my children believed what I told them. While they’re little, they actually believe whatever you say to them. They think their parents know everything. They see the world as you show it to them. They have no choice, not until they get older.
But even when they become sullen, rebellious teenagers, their attitudes toward life have been formed by their parents.
The point is, I think, that human existence is a chain of many generations. We are, to a large degree, what our parents made of us. Our children will be, equally, what we make of them. I’m not talking merely about our conscious attempts to teach our children how to live. The real influence comes from the unconscious things we do every day, the attitudes we show our children.
The stories we tell them are an important part of that learning process. Stories are all morality tales, narrations of how characters make choices between good and evil, even in seemingly trivial actions such as frolicking with a good-natured dragon.
There must be some way to make Puff’s story end more happily, I told myself.
So, despite my strictly amateur status as a poet, I wrote a happier ending. It goes like this:
A dragon lives forever, but boys grow into men,
And they have sons who hear the tales and live them all again.
Jackie Paper Jr. searched for Puff’s old cave,
And made him laugh and roar again as they sailed o’er the waves.
It’s far from being the greatest lyric ever written, but it gave me a feeling of satisfaction, almost as if Puff really exists and I helped him to be happy again.
The story of Puff may be trivial, but searching for a happier ending led me to a better understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood.
Poetry can do that.
Bova has written several books for young readers, including “Gremlins, Go Home!”, co-authored with Gordon R. Dickson. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.