A review of the BOOK

Fox in Socks

by Dr. Seuss

Central Question: What happens when sound guides sense?
Mildly mysterious dedication: “For Mitzi Long and Audrey Dimond of the Mt. Soledad Lingual Laboratories”; Meaning of dedication: Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) lived in the Mt. Soledad neighborhood in San Diego; Value, to collectors, of first edition: $260; Recommended if you like: Cox and Box by Arthur Sullivan and F.C. Bernard; Nox by Anne Carson; Predominant meter in Fox in Socks: trochaic tetrameter; Predominant meter in The Cat in the Hat: anapestic tetrameter; Part of a letter Geisel wrote to his agent in 1953: “It’s been seven years since I gave up being a soldier…. Now I’d like to give up movies and advertising and anything else that means dueling with vice-presidents and committees, hmmm?… I want to stay in La Jolla and write children’s books”; Representative passage: “New goo. Blue goo. Gooey. Gooey. Blue goo. New goo. Gluey. Gluey.”

“Fox. Socks. Box. Knox. Knox in box. Fox in socks.” These five words—ten, if you count the duplicates—are at once a distillation of modernist postulates and a radical critique of power, education, money, and patriarchy: a herald of the self-undermining (not to say postmodern) goals that forward-thinking writers (or so we are often told) pursue today.

“The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” This somewhat opaque declaration from Roman Jakobson, often thrown overhand at students who ask what makes a poem a poem, means, more or less, that poems assemble their unities not so much by meaning as by sound. And so Fox in Socks does, placing sonority over sense and the acoustic properties of words over their ability to refer, pursuing the play of the sign yet arguing, almost grimly, for the impossibility of free play. “I can’t blab such blibber blubber!” Knox says back to Fox. “My tongue isn’t made of rubber.”

As we mouth his refusals, we ourselves conform: we, readers of books aloud, have pronounced exactly the tongue-tying utterance that Knox declares himself unable, or unwilling, to say. Emphasizing the feel of phonemes in a hindered mouth, Fox in Socks thus becomes at once a lesson and a parody of lessons, a demonstration of mastery (“Take it slowly. This book is dangerous!”) and a parody of all institutional power relations, especially those fostered by progressive education. Fox expects (or pretends to expect) not only that Knox will learn to chew goo, but that Knox will “choose to chew goo, too.” Knox must want to learn (so Fox keeps thinking), must want “another game to play.” When Knox exclaims, “I hate this game,” he does not deter Fox; no wonder that Knox must then devise a refusal that appears as incapacity: “Mr. Fox, sir, I won’t do it. / I can’t say it. I won’t chew it.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. Some of his books are The Art of the Sonnet, with David Mikics (2010), Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry(2009), and Parallel Play, a book of poems (2006).

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