Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Locomotive

Isn't it funny how even today, when talking about trains, most of us imagine a big, fat, steam-powered locomotive? Though the oldest among us still remember them, such machines haven't been running in years. And yet the locomotive remains in our collective awareness as a symbol of railroad travel- all the more magical for its anachronism. Harry Potter rode an enchanted steam train to Hogwarts, and Thomas the Tank Engine is still teaching young children that trains have funnels. Toy trains are more fun when they appear to run on steam, even if the dial connects to electricity.

And one of the most iconic, most famous, most beloved children's poems in Polish literature is an ode to a steam train. The Locomotive, written by Julian Tuwim, is catchy, quotable and a veritable masterpiece of rhythm.

First a toot!
Then a hoot!

Steam is churning,

Wheels are turning!

This week, on September 13th was Julian Tuwim's birthday, which is celebrated with great pomp in Łódź. Born into a Jewish family in 1894, Tuwim was a proud citizen of the industrial town. (Note: at the time of his birth, Poland was partitioned, Łódź was part of the Russian Empire, and it would be twenty four more years before the country regained its independence and reappeared on the map.) He spent most of his life in Łódź, then Warsaw where he studied law. After the war broke out, he emigrated West in 1939, finally settling in New York for five years. He returned to Poland after the war and remained here until his death in 1953.

Tuwim carried a shrewd quill. He wrote about the everyday, about daily struggles- in a city run by ruthless industrialists, he had the guts to mock the greed and lust for riches that defined so many of them. In 1937, he wrote a work gracefully titled "A Poem in which the author politely yet firmly implores the vast hosts of his brethren to kiss his arse", a satire to annoy and denounce those whinging elements of Polish society he found most deplorable.

Suffice to say, the man was outspoken and unafraid. But while it was his sharp tongue and wit that made him famous in his day, it is the "Locomotive" poem that he is now best remembered by.

He has a statue on Piotrkowska Street, the most important street in Łódź. It shows him as an elderly gentleman with a kindly smile, sitting on a bench in front of the City Hall. There is a spot on the bench next to him, and if you sit down, Tuwim smiles at you, sparks in his eyes, as if he were about to tell you a story.

Julian Tuwim
Tuwim's bench, decorated by schoolchildren.

His nose is shiny and golden, worn from all the hands that touched it over the years. Tradition says the nose must be rubbed for luck. Other statues on Piotrkowska share the superstition- their noses are proof. But none have a smile as mysterious as Tuwim.

Tuwim & kids
Tuwim and the children

Every year on his birthday, schoolchildren gather around the statue to celebrate and recite the poem together- for "The Locomotive" is a poem best read aloud.

256/365:The choo choo train
In 2007, the kids made a live choo choo train which they paraded down the street.

Go on, give it a shot! Here is an excellent translation by mr. Walter Whipple. I'll give you some pointers: Start off slow- the locomotive is tired.

A big locomotive has pulled into town,
Heavy, humungus, with sweat rolling down,
A plump jumbo olive.
Huffing and puffing and panting and smelly,
Fire belches forth from her fat cast iron belly.

Poof, how she's burning,
Oof, how she's boiling,
Puff, how she's churning,
Huff, how she's toiling.
She's fully exhausted and all out of breath,
Yet the coalman continues to stoke her to death.

Now gesticulate, get excited- all this cargo! It's amazing!

Numerous wagons she tugs down the track:
Iron and steel monsters hitched up to her back,
All filled with people and other things too:
The first carries cattle, then horses not few;
The third car with corpulent people is filled,
Eating fat frankfurters all freshly grilled.
The fourth car is packed to the hilt with bananas,
The fifth has a cargo of six grand pi-an-as.
The sixth wagon carries a cannon of steel,
With heavy iron girders beneath every wheel.
The seventh has tables, oak cupboards with plates,
While an elephant, bear, two giraffes fill the eighth.
The ninth contains nothing but well-fattened swine,
In the tenth: bags and boxes, now isn't that fine?

There must be at least forty cars in a row,
And what they all carry — I simply don't know:

But if one thousand athletes, with muscles of steel,
Each ate one thousand cutlets in one giant meal,
And each one exerted as much as he could,
They'd never quite manage to lift such a load.

Now watch we go! It's moving!

First a toot!
Then a hoot!
Steam is churning,
Wheels are turning!

Slowly now...

More slowly - than turtles - with freight - on their - backs,
The drowsy - steam engine - sets off - down the tracks.
She chugs and she tugs at her wagons with strain,
As wheel after wheel slowly turns on the train.
She doubles her effort and quickens her pace,
And rambles and scrambles to keep up the race.
Oh whither, oh whither? go forward at will,
And chug along over the bridge, up the hill,
Through mountains and tunnels and meadows and woods,

Faster, read faster!

Now hurry, now hurry, deliver your goods.
Keep up your tempo, now push along, push along,
Chug along, tug along, tug along, chug along
Lightly and sprightly she carries her freight
Like a ping-pong ball bouncing without any weight,
Not heavy equipment exhausted to death,
But a little tin toy, just a light puff of breath.
Oh whither, oh whither, you'll tell me, I trust,
What is it, what is it that gives you your thrust?
What gives you momentum to roll down the track?
It's hot steam that gives me my clickety-clack.
Hot steam from the boiler through tubes to the pistons,
The pistons then push at the wheels from short distance,
They drive and they push, and the train starts a-swooshin'
'Cuz steam on the pistons keeps pushin' and pushin';
The wheels start a rattlin', clatterin', chatterin'
Chug along, tug along, chug along, tug along! . . . .

Don't stop! Keep going...chug-along tug-along chug-along tug-along, tak-to-to, tak-to-to, tak-to-to, tak-to-to...

Meta info:

Wikipedia page for Julian Tuwim:

Julian Tuwim's works at

The Tuwim Birthday Event Page:

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