Actor John Lithgow has published nine children’s books and a memoir, and will add “poet” to his literary resume with Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse (Chronicle Prism, Oct. 2019). Lithgow has been a life-long reader of poetry, crediting this love of verse to his Nantucket-raised grandmother who recited the epic poetry she had memorized as a child.
Dumpty began at the Public Theater in New York City in 2018, when Lithgow performed Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Major General's Song in character as former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The actor wrote new verses for this classic song, telling the story of Flynn’s political fall from grace. After a rousing response from the audience, Lithgow’s literary agent—Aevitas Creative managing partner David Kuhn—suggested that the actor write an entire book of political verse. Kuhn sold the project to Chronicle Prism in August 2018, complete with the actor’s own illustrations.
In Los Angeles, Lithgow spoke with PW about his forthcoming book.
PW: What was it like to write a book of poetry for the first time?
I was not a poet. I’d never just sat down and wrote a poem from start to finish. So I went back to Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, and Mother Goose. I looked at these poetry structures, and I would borrow from them and parody them.
I have “The Walrus and the Kleptocrat” in the same format as Lewis Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter." I have "Another Owl and Another Pussycat" after "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat" by Edward Lear. Instead of Robert Burns's "To a Mouse," I have "To a Rat" about Michael Cohen, written in the mode of Robert Burns with a thick Scottish accent.
A third of them are little homages, parodies of very familiar poems. But the rest of them were my own. I started taking liberties and writing odd little interstitial poems, like a poem that rhymes the word “Hannity” with manatee, vanity, insanity, or inanity. There were a couple of times I realized I had picked the wrong verse structure, and it was too complicated and convoluted. So I would go back to something stupidly simple like a Mother Goose “Humpty Dumpty” rhyme.
It was just a wonderful thing to do. I would concentrate until I solved the Chinese puzzle of a verse that was full of clever rhyme, perfect meter, and told a very satirical and, sometimes, a very savage story about the Trump administration.
PW: What place does political poetry have in the 21st Century?
Political poetry is an old, old tradition. Politics is in the water right now. Everybody is consumed with politics, the way we get consumed with a drama series that everybody is watching. Political humor is better than it's ever been because, god, we have to have some outlet. There's such an audience for political humor and there are such brilliant entertainers.
I went back and read some Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay. In their era, politics was in the water back too. But so was poetry, I presume.
There is a reason why these poets lasted so long. Why they are so classic. It is because they were so big in their era and they tell you so much about the history of their era. They were writing about what was going on.
PW: What was it like illustrating your own book?
I didn't do the drawings at all until I had all the poems done. For an entire month, I did nothing but illustrate. That was hard. I had a studio for a while, and I did oil paintings as a hobby. I do have regrets that I didn't become a painter.
I intended to be an artist when I was a kid, right up until I got to college and I fell in with the theater crowd. But I've never let go of the fantasy of just stopping for a year, or for the rest of my career, and just painting.
My children's book editor, a wonderful man named David Gale [editorial director of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers]. He has urged me for years to write a book of children's poems very much in the vein of Dumpty, and do my own illustrations, the way Shel Silverstein did.
I think that would probably be the sensible thing for me to do next.