Lyrics in the Swamp

In the Swamp, nothing was more squishy and unstable than language. Whenever there were arguments—and the Swamp was rife with clamorous dissension—the source was likely to be words misheard or misspoken, misused or misconstrued.

The Swamp was ostensibly the Okefenokee Swamp, but it had far less in common with Florida and Georgia than with Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, another enchanted domain where voluble zoological oddities—weird talking animals—could be heard distorting syntax and splintering language:

The Swamp’s originator was Walt Kelly, whose great Pogo ran as a daily comic strip from the late Forties, beginning in the short-lived New York Star, until it dribbled to a close after he died of complications from diabetes in 1973. Like Doonesbury (whose creator, Garry Trudeau, has acknowledged a happy debt to Kelly), Pogo boasted a cast of characters not only encyclopedic but peripatetic; if the mood struck him, Kelly didn’t hesitate to shuttle his troupe of animals off to Australia or (in the guise of costume dramas) Russia, Sherwood Forest or the moon. In the end, it little mattered where he plunked them down, since they carried their speech patterns with them and these, more than any endemic flora and fauna, gave the Swamp its stylistically dense and redolent flavor.

The strip took its name from a timid, kindly, much-put-upon opossum, Pogo Possum, who grew cuter—larger-eyed and rounder-nosed—over the years. Pogo himself wasn’t much inclined to disputation. Creature of simple appetites that he was, he was content to fish for catfish day after unambitious day. Late in his career, Kelly described Pogo as “the reasonably patient, soft-hearted, naive, friendly little person we all think we are.” Although living among creatures addicted to scheming (get-rich schemes, seize-power schemes, play-Cupid schemes, become-famous schemes), Pogo remained someone things happened around or to. Biologists speak of the contrary impulses of “fight or flight,” but for Pogo flight was fight. His instinct for tempered, proud, quiet retreat is neatly captured in a strip from the Fifties, in which he balked at an influx of invasive relatives:

Albert the Alligator, who had a way of looming suddenly out of a cloud of cigar smoke, effectively played Bottom the Weaver to Pogo’s Snout the Tinker. Albert was arrogant, bumptious, credulous, thoroughly dopey. He was also a scene-stealer, who regularly jostled the little opossum from center stage. Albert was certainly a cheering presence. Few things in the world have so dependably amused me, over the years, as images of Albert wearing a look of indomitable shrewdness as he prepares to plunge once more into bottomless folly. His blazing dimness shone in a series of memorable strips, also from the Fifties, in which he and Beauregard the Dog engaged in a Thinking Contest. Each competitor sought to prove that his brain could encompass more than his opponent’s:

Much of the dialogue in Pogo—a distinctive mixture of slyness and buffoonery, sophisticated spoonerisms and babbling baby talk—owed a debt to Artemus Ward’s…

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