One of Spike Milligan’s more baffling poems, ‘Why?’ inspires a reader to ask the title question over and over. Why does the poet want to talk about these topics? And why have they been discussed so outrageously, yet briefly? That is the main pleasure of a work like this. Whether a reader is young or old there is a joy to be indulged in through the arrangement of perfectly rhyming and rhythmic words that tell a light-hearted, if somewhat confusing, story.
Summary of Why?
In the first lines, the speaker tells the reader, very simply, that American detectives never take off their hats while investigating murders. He goes on in the second stanza, adding a postscript, to say that the Chinese “Tecs” are the opposite. They’re more “dreaded” and always investigate “bare-headed”.
You can read the full poem here.
Poetic Techniques in Why?
‘Why?’ by Spike Milligan is a two stanza poem separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB DEFE. Despite the simplicity of the rhyme scheme, and of the language, Milligan makes use of several poetic techniques in this poem. These include alliteration, enjambment, juxtaposition and internal rhyme.
The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “always appear” in the second stanza.
Juxtaposition is utilized when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. In the case of ‘Why?’ Milligan places the humorous image of American detectives who never take off their hats alongside murder.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout ‘Why?’ but one particularly effective one occurs in the transition between the first and second lines of the first stanza.
Lastly, Milligan utilized internal rhyme. It is a kind of perfect or imperfect rhyme that is not constrained to the end of the lines but can appear anywhere. For example, the perfect/full rhyme “Are” and “far” in the second stanza.
Analysis of Why?
In other people’s flats.
In the first stanza, the speaker makes a simple, yet puzzling statement. He tells the reader that “American Detectives,” when investigating murders in “people’s flats” never take their hats off. This is a clear and direct statement, syntax wise, but the content and purpose it bewildering. Especially when considered alongside the second stanza.
It is interesting to consider why the speaker, or Milligan for that matter, wanted to make this statement about detectives. The first and most obvious answer is that it’s entertaining. Much of Milligan’s work was crafted with amusement and bafflement at the top of the list. His poems were written mainly for a young audience and it is with them in mind that he put together this short, humorous poem.
Another important feature of the poem to consider is the rhyme scheme. As is often the case in poetry, whether it’s for children or not, is how words are chosen or altered to fit a particular pattern. This is even more true for strictly metered poems. In this case, the choice to speak about “hats” or “flats” might be influenced by the general desire to create a perfect, harmonious rhyme.
P.S. Chinese Tecs
The second stanza begins with the abbreviation “P.S.” indicating that this is a “postscript” to the first stanza. It’s an extra bit of information the speaker forgot to mention before or made more sense at the bottom, after the primary message. With this in mind, and with the use of exclamations in lines two and four, a reader can assume these lines are interjected with more passion and excitement. It is as if the speaker just recalled the “Chinese Tecs.”
The word “Tec” is also interesting in this piece. When considering what Milligan meant through its utilization, the most obvious answer is that it’s an abbreviation of “detective”. But, that raises the question, why? Why did he choose to abbreviate it this time, but not do so in the first stanza? There is no single answer, but what is clear is that Milligan was certainly interested in the reader asking the question, “why?” Why, one wonders, do American detectives not take off their hats, and why do Chinese detectives never wear hats? Then perhaps most importantly, why are these situations being spoken about at all?
There are no answers to these inquiries except for one that reoccurs within children’s poetry. The scenarios and words were, in some measure, placed together for the reader’s pleasure. Often, poets who write with a young audience in mind focus their writing on what’s going to sound pleasurable and interesting when reading out loud.