Frog's Progress: A Fable

Once upon a time, in the middle of a secluded pond, a little green frog squatted on his favourite lily pad. The sun glowed warm on his back, and he felt content. “This is the life,” he thought, and began to kerchunk a tune, as he often did on such comfortable afternoons.

Two long white ears wriggled out from the ferns at the pond’s edge. “Gee,” the bunny sighed, “that’s purty.” Her dull pink eyes flickered with pleasure. “I never knew a poet lived in these here waters.”

A poet? The little frog blinked. Of course, he sang whenever the mood struck, but he never thought his words moved anyone—until now. But why not? He had been at it long enough. “Why, yes, indeed.” His throat swelled. “H.D. Green—I guess you could call me the poet of Stone’s Throw Pond.” The words had such a fine ring. Why hadn’t he thought to call himself a poet before?

“Oh, just wait till I pass ’round the news we got us a celebrity here,” exclaimed the bunny, and hopped away through the ferns.

The next morning, when the frog splashed onto the lily pad to take a little sun, round the edge of the pond sat bunny, two of her cousins, the hedgehog, a mouse, and a fat old black squirrel. Bunny leaned forward.

“I brought me some friends t’hear your poetry, H.D. Green,” she announced.

“Why, thank you!” chirped the little frog, and bowed.

The animals politely thumped their tails on the ground.

The frog began, “I would like to open with a new work—created just yesterday, as a matter of fact. I call it ‘Warm in the Sun’.”

When he finished, the animals thumped their tails again. “Let’s hear another!” squeaked the mouse.

“Louder!” the old squirrel shouted.

In the most booming voice he could muster, the little frog recited his earlier poems, one about mist rising from the cattails at dawn, another on catching delicious flies with one curl of his long tongue, and concluded with an impromptu composition, “Friends in the Fronds”. The animals thumped their tails again, even harder, except for the hedgehog.

Once the others had woven away through the ferns, the hedgehog waddled up to the little frog. “You know,” he intoned, “your work does show promise. Obviously, it’s sincere. However,” his back bristled, “you seem to forget we live in a swamp of despair. At any given time, we could be devoured by forces beyond our control. Your poems are passé. You have to be a Postoptimist, if you want to leap ahead in the poetry game, to splash your name out there.”

Out there? The little frog’s heart jumped. Somewhere must be a bigger pond, one he had never dreamed of, awaiting his talents.

The next morning, he rolled his few possessions inside a leaf, and hopped off across the countryside in search of the big pond. On his way, he hitched rides on a farmer’s hay wagon, a travelling-circus elephant, and the taillight of a motorcycle. These experiences gave rise to several “on-the-road” poems (the last a particularly wart-raising account titled “Fast Ride to Hell”) and marked the transition from a lyric to narrative phase in his writing. After several days, sore-webbed and dusty, he smelled water, and hopped as fast as he could down a dip in the meadow, bounding past a grease-spattered sign “Welcome to the Great Lake”.

That evening, as the sun set over the beer cans bobbing on the algae, he heard a chorus of croakings. In the smoky pink light, he could make out, down the shore, the silhouettes of three toads performing on an empty oil drum. A shadowy audience crouched in the littered sand. Excited, he splashed to join the performance. “I’m a poet, too!” he kerchunked, scrambling up beside the toad.

“Drip off, froggie.” The biggest toad shoved him aside. “You’ll get your turn in the open set.”

Humbled, the little frog crept into the crowd to wait his turn.

“I can tell you’re new, darling.” A weasel glittered her teeth at him. She smoothed her sleek blond fur. “You need a friend, to help you along.”

The little frog grinned. What a lucky find! He moved in with Ms. Weasel that night.

At first, her hole in the ground felt uncomfortable. He couldn’t bask in the sun or keep his skin as moist as he’d like. However, one had to pay the price for success, and Ms. Weasel’s efforts on his behalf were worth it. She knew everyone at the Great Lake, and took him to all the best beach parties. She invited the Postoptimist toads over frequently to nibble on grass and croak away the night in intense discussions of what Ms. Weasel secretly referred to as “hocus-pocus”. They never seemed to compose much, though, which puzzled the little frog.

That summer, Ms. Weasel urged the little frog to climb the hill to a prestigious poets’ retreat. “It will make important contacts for you, darling.” She winked. “Afterwards, you can teach.” And, sure enough, that autumn the little frog was invited by the well-known badger who’d befriended him at the retreat, to join the Creative Writing Department at Muddy College.

In the classroom, he swelled his throat and instructed his students to develop a “relationship with language”, concentrate on “process” rather than product, and “take risks” in their poetic creation. He wasn’t little any more. As a professor, he was often called upon to review other poets’ work. Naturally, he was never too critical, except of an unknown who couldn’t advance his own career anyway.

Career? “Yes,” the frog’s chest puffed up, “I’ve really found my voice now.” And he reminded everyone who crossed his path of that fact. He croaked how he had just dined with Buck or Bow-wow, and frequented Piggy Wood. He hunkered through the entire Interlake Poetry Festival at Waterfront, careful to echo the celebrities’ own words, so they thought he was a brilliant, though less famous, frog. He gurgled at parties about his heavy literary commitments—Juror for the B.O.G., Guest Speaker for Fashionable Book Week, Professor, Performer—and how he still made time for his writing. Of course, he had published two full-length collections already, his early lyrics and the on-the-road poems, and his treatise on Postoptimist aesthetics was forthcoming. His entry in the prestigious annual Dip-In Competition had made the short list. Next year, his eyes bulged, he would win.

In fact, his career was bounding ahead so well, he really didn’t need Ms. Weasel anymore. He was tired of living in a hole. He wanted sunlight, a younger, less clever companion. He prepared for a tearful scene, and wrote “Last Sound Poem—for W” to perform for his ex-mistress, as both memento and consolation.

“You little green ingrate!” she shrieked. “We’ll see how long you survive on your own! Get out!”

The frog shrugged and continued, now that he knew the jumps, along his poetic career path, mating once, then amusing himself after the tadpoles had hatched and swum away, with the guppies who hung around Waterfront. Only one challenge remained: a return visit, in triumph, to Stone’s Throw Pond, his first home.

On the same lily pad that had launched his career, the frog swelled round and confident. Eagerly, he scanned the forest animals clustered among the ferns for the figure of bunny, the first to have called him poet. There she crouched, in the very front row, shaking with the years, but pink eyes flickering in anticipation. Every poem he boomed for her—his landmark “Poem on Writing a Poem on Writing a Poem”, the oft-anthologized water self-reflections sequence, even his final number, “Last Sound Poem—for W”.

The long silence afterwards cut across the pond like an icy wind, thawed only by a polite thump or two of tails. The frog turned his darkest shade of green. At the Great Lake they loved his work! These hicks from the old days didn’t know a contemporary masterpiece from a fly’s wing. As he stormed off his lily pad toward the ferns, a soft white paw reached out.

“Well, H.D. Green, it sure is thrilling—you a big frog at the Great Lake, come back here to visit.”

Good old bunny. She could appreciate how much he’d accomplished.

“Too bad, though.” She tried to wiggle her ears. “’Didn’t understand one word. Not like a long time back, when you wrote about the sunshine and the everyday things we knew. Guess that’s what being famous means…”

“I guess it is,” the big green frog croaked, and ever so slowly, hopped away.

~~~~~

From Holding True: Essays on Being a Writer, Toronto: Wordwrights Canada, 2017