Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: The Pig in the Spigot

Peter Shea

Review of The Pig in the Spigot by Richard Wilbur (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2000).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 19(1): 1.

Here’s a book to help us think about words. The Pig in the Spigot informs the reader that a pig in the spigot is no big problem; a little extra water will flush him out.

An ox in the phlox is more worrisome. The elf in the belfry has a problem; a belfry is too gloomy for an elf. And the rat on Ararat has no problems at all; he should go make friends with the lady rat. In short verses, the poet Richard Wilbur invites the reader to find friendly little words inside big words, and then to imagine why they’re there.

The trick is addictive. Friendships have ends, your mother is other, there’s occasionally a bat in the bathroom, stewards sometimes serve stew, and gophers frequently go, but there’s no sin in sincere, thunder is over, not under, and balloons don’t have to be balls. The Pig in the Spigot sets up games to keep on playing, for parents and kids or kids alone – a useful benefit for a book, when the games are good games.

These games are very good — for banishing the natural fear that culture arouses in beginners. Mysterious words are scary to everybody. When adults run into “eleemosynary” or “unprepossessing” or “reticulated,” they feel they have been found out, shown up as not smart enough. That happens more often than not to children. The culture keeps hammering at them: “There is so much you don’t know.” This book suggests instead: “Make a friend within the scary word, and then work together with that friend to figure out the place where it lives.” That’s good strategy for coming to terms with new words. Indeed, it’s pretty good strategy for coming to understand any complex thing: find some part you know about, and work outward from there.

These games also show up the hidden power of words. The feeling one has, coming off the book, is that words carry stories inside them. Words are not just passive tools. Words, on the view Wilbur evokes in this book, have all sorts of interesting relations with other words. One just has to listen to them, let the words tell their stories. That’s an attitude that is at least as accurate as the “words are shovels and hammers” attitude, and much more helpful for a beginning writer, or for a reader hungry for meaning.

When someone plays the game that The Pig in the Spigot starts, he or she will eventually come to make distinctions between fanciful presences of words in words and the deep ways that words are compound and complex and bearers of strange construction histories. This investigation is deep in the roots of philosophy; the many ways that words contain meaning in their internal relations is the theme of the first effort at linguistic understanding in Western philosophy, Plato’s Cratylus, a work as playful in its own way as this one, though largely inaccessible to those who don’t know Greek.

Someone might object: “Yes, words are serious business, and should be taken seriously. A child should learn about roots and prefixes and suffixes properly, in order, without all this misleading fanciful talk. There is no scientific way that ‘ant’ is a part of ‘pantry.’ Any educated adult knows that.” There are a couple of answers to that objection. First, kids who are forced to learn lists of prefixes and suffixes and Greek and Latin roots generally end up hating word work, despising dictionaries. They are given many answers before they have had the chance to ask any questions, and the possibility of word-geology as fun is stolen from them. I’d guess that, once children get started Wilbur’s way, finding words in words and wondering what they are doing there, they’ll take on information about prefixes and suffixes and roots as a way to make the game more fun, and they’ll develop a life-long habit of squinting at words to see what might be in them.

Also, as with many things that adults allegedly learned and now know, it turns out that mostly they didn’t and don’t. People usually have as little sense of how words work as of how computers work. The person who sets out to discover something seldom wonders what is covering it up: that might be a good question to start with. If I inform you of something, I seldom think about making a form in you (a sort of brain surgery). But I should think about that. When I want to understand something, a plausible strategy is to stand under it. And responsibility, that grand thing parents are always trying to drum into their kids, insists on being about response, not neatness and obedience. The old ways of teaching don’t make poetic adults.

We can learn from our words, if we listen to them and play with them and see what they contain. That’s a lesson from the outer limits of philosophy, from Heidegger and Wittgenstein and Ricoeur. But the journey of listening to our own words can’t begin with these venerable giants. It has to start with fine springboard books like The Pig in the Spigot and with good games, played for life.