Waterman Redux


Arts & Culture

Waterman at Cornell, 1926

There are times I am facetious in these articles. It’s not always perceived. Therefore, allow me to take a moment to clarify my last piece about the limericks of the poet Paul Waterman. I do not actually think Waterman was crazy, and neither do I think all, most, or even any of his limericks are gibberish. They all make sense. They’re obscure, that’s all. He was eccentric, that’s all.

My first piece was written at an early stage of the Waterman Renaissance. It’s been three weeks; much has happened. As you can see from the photograph above, an image of Waterman has surfaced. He is roughly twenty-three years old in that picture. His dates are now known to be July 3, 1903–February 17, 1987. He went to Cornell on a scholarship. For a great many years he owned a small farm in a town called Maryland, New York. He had a twin brother, John Waterman, whom he outlived by twenty-five years. And he is now known to have published ten books, all of them poetry, all of them printed at his own expense:

Boy for a Blonde (1932)
Cabin for Two (1934)

—twenty-one-year hiatus—

Love to the Town

—eight-year hiatus—

The Limerick Trilogy:
     Mad Land of Limerick (1963)
     Those Brats from Limerick (1964)
     Five Lines to Limerick (1965)

Four Books of Haiku:
     Wee Wings (1966)
     Brief Candles (1967)
    Whimseys [sic] (1968; second edition 1973)
    Thus and Now (1974)

It should be noted that almost all this information (and a great deal more) has come to light through the efforts of my newest friend, a retired librarian, quite legendary in Wisconsin, named David Lull. Mr. Lull also reports that Cornell University is in possession of Waterman’s undergraduate diaries (1920–1925, and part of 1928). We also happen to know Waterman’s last two mailing addresses, and the names of many of his family members. Also that he is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Worcester, New York.

The Magnolia Hotel in Starke, Florida, where Waterman wintered for thirty or forty years

Perhaps none of this would matter, except for those ten books. And even with the ten books—or six of ’em, anyhow—it probably doesn’t matter.

Why do I say six? Because that’s how many are in my collection:

Three of the four that are currently preventing me from owning the whole catalogue—Wee WingsBrief Candles, and Whimseys—apparently cannot be purchased at any price. The only way to read those bad boys is to use interlibrary loan and get ’em from Brown University, which keeps an especially complete collection of American haiku books.

Since I mention haiku, let me share the results of some of my own research. Waterman published haiku in many different magazines, but none was more welcoming of his work than Modern Haiku, currently celebrating fifty years of continuous publication, and widely considered the preeminent organ of English-language haiku and haiku-related art. Waterman was in the very first issue, Winter 1969. Furthermore, he was in every issue of the magazine, without exception, through the first six years of publication. There was literally no one who was a more regular contributor than Paul Waterman.

I was extremely curious as to what his haiku were going to be like, given the relentless oddity of his limericks. Lucky for me, Thus and Now, his last book, is all haiku, and I have it. (This is indeed the item in my Waterman collection upon which I dropped the most money: something like $29 for forty-eight haiku and one tanka. One could comfortably print the whole book on three or four sheets of typing paper, if you used columns.)

What are the poems like? Completely normal, accomplished, standard-issue. Here, I’ll throw down some specimens:

The weathered cupola
doves flying in and out
through broken shutters.

Two gulls
perching on piling
piggy back.

Tom cat
in my easy chair
glaring back.

Gorged with snow melt
the spring freshet
clatters stones against stones.

Great pine with two trunks
casting long shadows
that connect snow islands.

Leaping fish
breaking through clutter
of floating leaves.

Rain against the pane
kitten on the window seat
pawing at splashes.

Rising and falling
the edge of the lily pad
bends with the ripples.

These are representative. They ran against my expectations, because I had decided Waterman’s commitments with regard to writing were uniformly “lite.” I would have confidently bet twenty bucks his haiku would all be modeled on those of Kobayashi Issa, and I mean Issa at his most personal and witty. Yet Waterman frequently has a surprise up his sleeve. Who knows what haiku he had read, but his haiku mainly remind me of those by the most austere of the Japanese greats: Yosa Buson. The self is elsewhere; nature is all.

Who was this Waterman?

Let me tell you something, my excitement was very great when I got Boy for a Blonde (his first book) out of its envelope. My question was: Will the poems he wrote when he was in his twenties and early thirties bear any resemblance to the limericks? Or are the limericks strictly sui generis—?

Those limericks, let me remind you, all look like this:


I’m praying that “Atom-the-bomb”
Will stick to her knitting and broom.
If “Atom” should fall,
My knitting and all
Would all to the top of the room.

Mad Land of Limerick, p. 22

and this:


I’d like to “ride back” to the kid
And ride on Old Dick as a kid.
I’d like to return,
Not fancy or yearn—
I’d like to “ride back” to the kid.

Those Brats from Limerick, p. 38

and this:


’Twas only the ghost of a jar—
No threat to the life of the car . . .
But mother, of course,
Declared for a horse
And left the old “gasser” for Star!

Five Lines to Limerick, p. 48

In a word, they represent a poetical-technological breakthrough of the very first rank: a different way to be funny in a limerick. Namely: write some key part of the thing in crossword-puzzle English, so the reader has to read the piece twice, and then three times, to get at its literal meaning. The bewilderment during the delay reliably causes happy laughter.

Good. So, was he like that in 1932? Answer: Yes, kinda! Just like with the limericks, the poems seem easy, but there’s always some nondescript preposition or conjunction that throws the whole thing into a dizzy semiotic stagger.

Just consider the title Boy for a Blonde. What does that mean? Are we engaged in barter (“I’ll swap ya a boy for a blonde, whaddaya say?”)? Or is the construction more like in the phrase “He is a man for all occasions”—is the idea that the boy is specially fit for (or suitable to) a blonde? So turn to page 13 (the book’s first page of poetry) and look at the piece itself. Here’s the whole thing, all eight lines:


O, let him bear the thrusts of fate
Nor know a wife’s caress,
For there shall come to man alone
The spears of loneliness.

And let the arrows miss the heart
Though days become a year,
For there’s a golden Nemesis
To hurl the proper spear!

Is that light verse? I think not. For starters, it’s hard as Yeats. Or some of Yeats, anyhow. It’s not as hard as the hardest Yeats, okay, but still. I translate: “Let a man be lonely, lest he not experience the desirable and proper spearing from Golden-Aphrodite-turned-Nemesis (who might, just possibly, be Death).” First poem, first book; whoa.

A lot of Boy for a Blonde is like this. Likewise, Love to the Town. Philosophical, perverse, oddly obscure, sometimes naughty, metrically clean and lucid everywhere … but mainly oddly obscure.

Then come those strange three years of limericks, miraculous limericks that manage a feat not accomplished since Christmas 1872. Namely, they stand up to a hundred readings.


A cat by the name of De Kitten
Grew light as a leprechaun’s mitten
Till one of his ears
And two of his cares
Were more than the weight of De Kitten.

Mad Land of Limerick, p. 27.


Incredibly playing the “walker”,
He had all the cars in a flutter
Except for the smooth
Which rode in a groove
Bisecting the rump of the “walker”.

Those Brats from Limerick, p. 4


“Who” wants to be cute as a poodle,
“Who” wiggles his nose for a noodle—
You’re meeting a “pom”,
“Who” shops for a mom
And pays with a bark for the “boodle”.

Mad Land of Limerick, p. 25.

Waterman is no more, my friends. The man who told a reporter in 1955 that he believed the people who would most enjoy his work were “shut-ins and those who are hospitalized” is no more. Yet Waterman can never wholly leave us, not while we read him to ourselves and to each other. And now, even now, his last book of limericks falls open to page 42…


You build your own bridge from your birth.
You build with small thought of its worth.
Tread lightly, my friend,
When close to the end:
Tread lightly when leaving the earth.

Waterman’s tombstone

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.