Well before he met Yoko Ono, John Lennon had a habit of going his own way. As early as 1964 — at the height of Beatlemania — he published “In His Own Write,” a collection of off-kilter poems and stories with line drawings; he followed it the next year with “A Spaniard in the Works.” Both books are satirical, full of whimsy, but also marked by that distinctive Lennon edge. “Sir Alice Doubtless-Whom,” he writes in “We must not forget … the General Erection” (a biting piece inspired by Harold Wilson’s election as prime minister), “was — quote — ‘bitherly dithapointed’ but managed to keep smirking on his 500,000 acre estate in Scotland with a bit of fishing and that.”
Lennon would have turned 70 this month had he not been murdered on Dec. 8, 1980. To commemorate the anniversary, “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works” have been reissued in an omnibus edition, with a vestigial introduction by Ono (“Hi! My name is Yoko Ono. I’d like you to meet John Lennon,” it reads in its entirety) and a longer one by Paul McCartney, originally written for the first edition of “In His Own Write.” If none of this is new — a similar volume came out in the early 1980s, and another one 10 years ago for Lennon’s 60th birthday — it offers an opportunity to consider this most recognizable of artists through a filter that is delightfully under-exposed.
“In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works” are of a piece, but different. The first is loose and off the cuff, while the latter features longer, more ambitious writings and wordplay in the vein of Edward Lear. Like Lear, Lennon relies on nonsense as a strategy and composes doggerel and silly stories, although he also can be quite pointed. For example, the poem “Our Dad” — which begins, “It wasn’t long before old dad / Was cumbersome — a drag. / He seemed to get the message and / Began to pack his bag” — seems to speak directly to his own father, who ran off when Lennon was a boy, only to reemerge in the wake of the Beatles’ rise. The drawings, meanwhile, are reminiscent of James Thurber, with their rounded figures and exaggerated sense of irony. In one, a group of men hold a brightly lit dog aloft like a lantern; in another, a blind beggar stands next to a man who wears a sign that reads, “I can see quite clearly.”
Over the years, fans have sought to frame Lennon’s writing as Joycean, for its embrace of puns and idiosyncratic spellings, à la “Finnegans Wake.” That’s a stretch, not least because Lennon was never anything but accessible, whereas Joyce prided himself on being willfully obscure. More to the point is how Lennon immerses himself in the language, less interested in the meaning than in the sound of the words. This, of course, is as it should be; he was a musician first, after all. Still, with “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works,” we see a different side of his expression: exuberant and playful but with a fire all its own.