The Space Child's Mother Goose, for Poetry Friday

When I was eleven, I met the word "postulate" for the first time. It was in the following poem:

"Probable-Possible, my black hen,
She lays eggs in the Relative When.
She doesn't lay eggs in the Positive Now
Because she's unable to Postulate how."

This poem is the first in a slim volume entitled The Space Child's Mother Goose, by Frederick Winsor, illustrated by Marian Parry. It was published way back in 1956, but is still holding great appeal to the science geek-esque eleven year old of today. I know this for a fact, because I have been reading it with my own such child for three nights in a row. Not only are the poems (those we understand, which is by no means all of them...) fun, but it is illustrated in charming bizarrity with black and white illustrations filled with vaguely mathematical details, and peopled by space personages who have beaks (or possibly just very triangular profiles).

"There was an old woman with notions quite new,
She never told children the things they should do,
She hoisted the covers up over her head
When people explained where her theories led."

Here's the poem that most delights my boy-- a riff on The House that Jack Built.

It begins "This is the theory that Jack built."

And progressively we reach:

"This is the Button to Start the Machine
To make with the Cybernetics and Stuff
To cover Chaotic Confusion and Bluff
That hung on the Turn of a Plausible Phrase
And thickened the Erudite Verbal Haze
Cloaking Constant K
That saved the Summary
Based on the Mummery
Hiding the Flaw
That lay in the Theory Jack built."

And then along comes a Space Child "with Brow Serene"--- and Jack's Theory goes up in smoke!

My son has it memorized, and I am trying to convince him that the next time he has to take a standardized writing test, he should put in "erudite verbal haze." That, and the "turn of a plausible phrase" are our favorite lines.

So educational--some of us had to look up "sophistry" and "cybernetics" so that we could be sure we were explaining things properly (we knew in a general way, but not solidly enough to be sure). And some of us had no idea at all what, for instance, Jato was (although others of us, not me, did).

I'm not entirely convinced, though, by the quality of the verse....this is one of those cases where I find myself "improving" the poetry as I read it. Don't you think, for instance, that the last line of the Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe one above needs a "had" in the last line? And isn't "possible probable" more fun to say than "probable possible?" Oh well, you can't have everything in this imperfect world.

Side note: my mother once went on a birding trip with two famous astrophysicists; she was shocked they'd never heard of this, and ordered them a copy the moment she got home. She no longer has her own copy....for reasons best left, um, unsaid...though I'm pretty sure I would have asked first...I think.

Although first editions are scarce and costly, the reprinted edition of The Space Child's Mother Goose is available here at Think Geek for only 13.95

The Poetry Friday Round-Up is at The Opposite of Indifference today!


  1. I am cracking up that your mother's copy has somehow... er, vanished. Wonder how that happened. Hm.

    I love Jack's theory!!! How cool is that! And how wise of you to look up the words - now Mr. B can use them on those tests with aplomb! And scare his teachers further!

  2. I LOVE this! Think I'll hunt down a copy of my own . . .

  3. I grew up with this book!!! And had memorized Probable, Possible at an early age. :)

  4. Love those poems!! I've never heard of this! I'm sure I would be much more eloquent and intelligent sounding if I had those words floating around in my subconscious. The first word I've ever used where I got a compliment from an adult was "procrastinate" haha


  5. This book is perfect for people here in Singapore who are very deeply into the maths and sciences! It's a great way to combine literature/poetry into things that they are already familiar with. I shall definitely look for this in our library and share this with the teachers here. Thank you so much for sharing. I enjoyed reading through the quotes you provided.

    We are also doing a Fractured Fairy tale theme over at my site, and after reading some of the selected poems you shared, I felt that it could actually work for us as well - particularly the House that Jack Built and how it has been 'remade' - so glad to have bumped into you through Poetry Friday.

  6. This looks just fabulous! Am ordering a copy now! (Thank goodness for a paperback reprint! Your mother's copy is worth a pretty penny, it seems!!)

  7. I hope all of you who give this a try enjoy it as much as my son!

  8. I love this book, too! I grew up reading and rereading it, and what I like most about these poems is that the more I learn about the topics, the cleverer the poems appear to me. They're carefully crafted, and technically spot-on, at least for their time - and I'm afraid I can't agree with your suggested improvements.

    First, the meaning of the last line of the Old Woman with Notions Quite New would be fine with led or with had led, and the latter meaning might be slightly better. But the meter is perfect as written, so I think the authors chose well. (The word "theories" contains three syllables, not two, when said correctly. We've gotten sloppy - but the dictionary still shows the-o-ry.)

    Second, "probable possible" is actually meaningful, so reversing the words isn't an option, unless you don't give a hoot what is being said. The "probable possible" can be a subcategory of the possible, because a possible thing could be probable or improbable. However, a probable thing is already possible by implication, so "possible probable" would be a useless term - and no self-respecting philosopher hen would accept such a name, no matter how nicely it flows off your tongue. :)

    You mentioned that you enjoyed this book in part because the poems are educational. I agree wholeheartedly, and am just posting this to suggest that if you find yourself trying to improve one of the poems, you may have missed something while you were figuring it out. I hope you don't mind.

  9. Um...I think theories would be very tricky to say with three syllables in the context of that last line, so I'll cling to my opionion that a had would be useful!

    1. nah, That's exactly how I say it (maybe my accent is affected) and it fits perfectly well.


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