Pelican Briefs

Impassioned by her love of language, Eleanor Johnson would have poured poetry and literature into our heads with a funnel if she’d been able.  Lacking direct access to our distracted childhood brains, my fifth-grade teacher did the next best thing.  She nagged, cajoled, insisted and assigned until we nearly collapsed under the weight of her incessant demands that we pay attention to words.

It was Miss Johnson who insisted we memorize and recite poetry until we thought we were going to throw up.  It was Miss Johnson who assigned the class its first important written theme, an unhappy exercise entitled, What is poetry?   Poetry?  The very thought elicited groans of disapproval and resistance, and I remember sighing as I examined the new burden she’d imposed.  The essay was to be no less than two hundred words!  My distress was eased only by the fact that I knew an answer and suspected it was an answer Miss Johnson might approve.  Poetry, to my way of thinking, was fun.

I learned my first poem at my grandparents’ table.   I still roll it out from time to time, and always laugh even if no one else seems inclined.

 “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle.
 First a little, then a lot’ll.”

It has rhythm, it has rhyme, and it made me giggle every time mom made a meatloaf for dinner and put the bottle on the table.  Sometimes, when meatloaf wasn’t on the menu, I’d beg for ketchup for my scrambled eggs,  french fries or chicken leg, just to have an excuse to recite my “verse”.   Every time, my Dad would look at me over his glasses and say, “That’s not only verse, it’s the verst”.  And I’d giggle again.

It wasn’t long before I met the mighty pelican, and memorized my version of his poem:

Behold the mighty pelican.
His beak holds more than his belican.
I don’t know how the helican,
but then, he is the pelican.

Part of the giggle of the pelican poem was getting to say “helican” without being swatted by whichever adult was lurking around. Later I began to collect variants of the ditty, originally penned in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt (1879-1972), an editor for Nashville’s morning paper, The Tennessean.  Ogden Nash often gets the credit for the paean to the wondrous bird, but it’s apparently Merritt who deserves it.  President of the American Press Humorists Association, he was witty and word-perfect.  His original pelican poem was inspired by a post card sent  him by a reader who’d been visiting Florida.

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I’m darned if I know how the helican.
 

His poem was my introduction to limericks, and I loved them.  Often they popped into my mind without any effort at all.  Even today, I’ll sometimes drop a comment into someone’s blog in limerick form, as I did when oh! said she was going to be busy with real-world obligations and wouldn’t be tending her blog for a bit:

There once was a writer named oh
with too many places to go.
She came and she went
while her bloggie friends lent
her permission to be a no-show.

Unfortunately, poetry hasn’t been all fun and games.  There came a day when I fell into the hands of those who took poetry Seriously, and whose view of poets was less cheerful than my own.  By the time I emerged from college, I’d been fairly well convinced poets either were suicidal or anti-social.  Even worse, I’d learned to analyze the life out of any poem that came my way, often under the tutelage of instructors whose mantra was, “But what does it MEAN?” 

By their standards, the words of a poem were one thing and the meaning quite another.  Our job was to pick poetry apart in search of meaning as though we were back in biology lab.  Poems became  metaphorical equivalents to the one-pound frogs lying scattered about our dissecting tables.  Like their skin, tissue and bones, our piles of simile, strips of metaphor and occasional onomatopoeiaic bits were vaguely interesting but entirely dead.

While I’m certain the various poetry associations and organizations would prefer to avoid having their efforts reduced to the chipper slogan, “Let’s Make Poetry Fun!”,  it’s a fact that wordplay is fun, perfectly suited to this season of road trips, bike excursions, beach lolling and mojitos.  Of course there’s a time to take poetry seriously, and to write serious poetry.  This year’s relatively “artsy” Poetry Month poster quoted T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock and asked the entirely serious question: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”.   The implied answer was “Yes” – because the universe needs disturbing from time to time, because speaking the right word at the right time can send rippling effects throughout the universe and because poets, above all, are masters of the word.

Unfortunately, promoting poetry by quoting T.S. Eliot can reinforce the common misconception that poetry is for a literary or intellectual elite.  Quite the opposite is true. Poetry isn’t drab or irrelevant, and it’s meant to be enjoyed, both the writing and the reading of it.  Truth be told, the impulse toward poetry can pop up anywhere, as Merritt’s famous pelican-postcard-inspired bit of doggerel shows.  Was his poem “important”?  Hardly. Has anyone ever analyzed it for deeper meaning? Probably not.  But it’s fun and memorable, quotable and perfectly suited to be a jumping-off point for a bit of summer afternoon verbal serve and volley.

 

Working and living around Seabrook, Texas, it’s impossible not to think of Merritt and his Mighty Pelican on a regular basis.  The whimsical creatures on this page are part of Seabrook’s Pelican Path Project, a collection of non-migratory birds that bring smiles to tourists and residents alike.  Some were battered by Hurricane Ike and many had to be moved or taken in for restoration.  Now, one by one, they’re beginning to re-emerge, tucked into the nooks and crannies of the little town like snippets of verse dropped by an inattentive muse.

Spying one for the first time, children are entranced.  Suddenly discovering a “new one”, adults are delighted.  People talk to them, and tourists have their photos taken with them.  I saw a fellow rub one’s beak as though he were rubbing the belly of of the Buddha for good luck, and a bride and groom once had a replica on top of their wedding cake.   Every time I see one I smile, astonished and delighted by their variety and by the creative vision that began populating the town with such elegant birds.  Every now and then, I wish Dixon Lanier Merritt could see them.  I can only imagine what he’d think.

I suppose as these pelicans go
some people would say, “Just for show”.
But they’re handsome and fun
as they bask in their sun
and inspire new verses to flow…

 

 
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18 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. made my day.

    Unijorn,

    Happy to do so! Thanks for the read, and for the comment.

    Linda

  2. Made me smile – we have had “Snoopy” character statues placed in St. Paul, MN with some similar results – but I like your pelicans better, as they seem less commercial somehow. Also – I agree that poetry should be fun, or transport us to another time / place / sensibility.

    Mary Ellen,

    Smiles all around! This was a fun essay to put together – including the Sunday morning trip with camera and coffee to get the photos. The pelicans really are a community project – individuals, groups and businesses have all contributed. I had to go peek – I didn’t realize Charles Schulz was born in Minneapolis.

    Today, of course, I remember Miss Johnson fondly. Over the years the poetry she poured in has started to bubble up again. Isn’t it such a shame we often can’t tell those who’ve influenced us how much they’ve meant to our lives?

    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your smile.

    Linda

  3. What fun, what fun!

    Oh, I remember those days in school and how I dreaded having to decipher poetry. You’re not the only to notice that the teachers always wanted you to find the “meaning” in them all. Which never seemed to be what the words were saying.

    I love limericks. I’ve tried my hand at them from time to time, with varying results. But they are such fun.

    Also love Kipling. His verse has so much rhythm that I feel like I’m a-horseback, posting away!

    Now that I’m grown and with no teacher insisting that I tell her/him what they mean, I enjoy dipping into serious poetry from time to time. I have to admit that I prefer lighter fare that I can read without struggling to understand it.

    Shakespeare is like that for me. I still do not really enjoy reading it. But I have immensely enjoyed Branagh’s movies and “seeing” it spoken in the captions on the TV and watching the action. Then, it comes alive!

    Bug,

    When I finally figured out poems weren’t mathematical equations to be “solved”, things got a whole lot more enjoyable. Kids like to play, and there just weren’t that many opportunities to play with language when I was growing up – at least that I remember. I suspect that’s at the heart of Dr. Seuss’ popularity – there’s a lot of playing going on in those books! I actually knew a fellow who, at the age of fifty, still hadn’t bumped up against Dr. Seuss. He never had heard of green eggs and ham and didn’t know the grinch came from a book. Can you imagine?

    I hate to admit it, but I’m with you on Shakespeare. Again, part of the problem may be that we never heard it spoken. When I ran across the hip-hop version of Puck’s soliloquy from Midsummer Night’s Dream, I fell in love! It helped change my view of hip hop and rap, too.

    Isn’t it funny how much we can learn when we don’t have a taskmaster breathing down our necks?

    Linda

  4. This is truly wonderful. I am so glad you hit the top of the WordPress front page so I could enjoy it with the rest of the world.

    Thank you so much!

    fullbodytransplant,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I was pretty surprised to see this as a “Hawt post”, I can tell you that. I guess even the WP folks were getting a little tired of the lead stories.

    Not only that, I went over and browsed through your site. I’ll admit – that’s a whole other world you’ve got going on! But that’s part of the pleasure of the internet – you never know when you’re going to stumble up against something you didn’t even know existed!

    Thanks so much for your kind words.

    Linda

  5. BTW… LOVE the pelicans!

    Bug,

    Aren’t they just the best? There are many more – a fireman, a policeman, a cheerleader sort and – well, there’s the one in front of the local Hooters ;-)

    Linda

  6. I almost hate to ask what that one looks like! LOL

    Very tasteful. A couple of strategically placed owls. Nice orange outfit. If the poor thing hadn’t been so beaten up by hurricane Ike, it would have had its photo posted, but it really needs a new paintjob!

  7. What fun, to picture you tromping around town, sipping coffee and snapping your pelicans.

    As far as poetry, it was long something to be avoided, as I could never “understand what it meant!!” An unfortunate waste of time… I didn’t want the same thing to happen with my students, so one of the first books we would read at the beginning of the year was LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech. The kids loved writing poetry after that.

    This was a nice read on a lovely, Sunday evening.

    Thanks, Linda :)

    Hi, qugrainne,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I really did have fun with the whole process, and hoped it would be a bit of pleasure for folks in the midst of so much else happening in the world.

    I went to Sharon Creech’s page and took a look at Love that Dog. There was a chapter preview, and I was completely entranced. I fully intend to purchase the book – it appears she’s captured the experience of so many of us in a way both appealing and true. Besides, I want to see how it ends. I also saw that “Hate that Cat” is one of her books. I’m going to read that sample chapter too. Maybe I’ll have to buy it and read it aloud to Dixie Rose ;-)

    Summer Sunday evenings are one of my favorite times. I’m happy to have been part of yours!

    Linda

  8. Linda,

    Delightful post! Love those pelicans. And, congrats on your making another “Hawt Post”. T.S. Eliot has some ‘fun’ lines too. You might be interested to stop by my NaPoMo post (April 16) where you’d find TSE’s words for our twittering generation. I also felt Hopper’s work is the visual manifestation of TSE’s poetry.

    On another note, here in Cowtown, Alberta, the iconic mascots adorning our streets are… yes, you guessed it, cows.

    Arti,

    I didn’t have a clue that Alberta was a “cow town”, let alone stampede city, but it makes perfect sense. I think many of us who haven’t traveled to that side of Canada think only of Vancouver and just don’t have a clue about the “western” side of things. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys have a wonderful song called “Big Ball in Cowtown” – I’ll send it along to you, since I can’t find a decent recording online. It’s great music.

    I’m anxious to go see your “fun Eliot”. Of course there’s The Naming of Cats – I always kid Dixie Rose about spending too much time in contemplation of her “ineffable” name. She just rolls over and sighs…

    Nothing’s twittering around here these days – we’re just waiting for the heat to break. It’s been a full week of over 100 now, in some cases substantially over. I’m looking forward to a July 4 weekend with nothing but lemonade, AC, my computer and time to roam and read – like your TSE!

    Oh – and isn’t that “hawt” a hoot? Personally, I think somebody just was tired of Michael Jackson and the philandering pols and said, “Here’s something different – pelican poetry!”

    Linda

  9. Right after the ketchup bottle poem you have this line:

    “It has rhythm, it has rhyme, and it made me giggle every time…”

    Found poetry! The best kind. :)

    My Dad used to recite the pelican belican poem every time the bird was mentioned.

    About poetry in school: my Grade 6 and 7 teacher was a real driver, making us commit dozens of poems to memory over the two years. The longest one, I think was The Highwayman. It was so long, I ran out of time writing it out and had to scribble out the last couple of verses. Some kids wrote out cheat sheets in long strips, stuffing them up their sleeves and rolling them out slowly.

    Ian,

    I can be so thick sometimes. It took me a minute to hear it! And even though I’ve heard and read about “found art”, I never had heard the expression “found poetry“. I got another good laugh when I read the Wiki I linked to – it was noted that some “found poetry” had been located in the press briefings of Don Rumsfeld.

    If you got to write out the poetry you memorized you were lucky. We had to recite it, in front of the class. We were divided into teams for the long ones, but we never knew which part we were going to be asked to recite. Miss Johnson’s cruelty was legendary ;-)

    When I moved to Texas in the early 70s, my folks came to visit and we went to Galveston. It was my Dad’s first time to see the Gulf, or a pelican. The first words out of his mouth? Yep – the pelican poem.

    Linda

  10. Synchronicity, how nice. I worked on a poem all day yesterday to post today, but I couldn’t get it right. (One day is rarely enough.) So I’m posting an old one.

    I grew up with an English teacher for a mom (one of her many lives), and a father who loved words (your dad sounds like a hoot). We loved word games, and limericks were the best. We hated playing Scrabble with Mom because she knew every word imaginable (such as “ai” – three-toed sloth).

    Memorizing poems is something I’ve tried here and there, it’s harder now, with age. My husband teaches his 3rd graders several to memorize, including Frost’s Stopping by a Woods. One girl asked to recite it at the holiday concert. There are such rewards when you know poems by heart.

    Fun, Linda!

    Ruth,

    If Miss Johnson hadn’t made us memorize “Evangeline”, I never would have begun writing. There’s another tale to tell, some day.

    My Dad’s love of word-play and puns always left the family rolling their eyes. When I still was in grade school, I escaped being sent to my room for some childish infraction of the rules by looking him straight in the eye and saying, “Oh, Daddy! Don’t pun-ish me!” He got a laugh, and I got to head back outdoors.

    Writing a “real” poem is such a strange process for me. Each I’ve done has taken weeks, if not months. It’s as though they arrive in my head as a foggy landscape, and then I have to just wait for the fog to clear, one word or phrase at a time. I have one that arrived on the Mississippi trip – “Delta Rain” – and I’m most interested to see what it’s going to turn out to be!

    Linda

  11. “Animal crackers and cocoa to drink,
    That is the finest of suppers I think.
    When I am old and can do as I please,
    I know I shall always insist upon these.”

    Those words sent us to sleep every night, sometimes alternating with “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Comfort and fun, all at once.

    Love the ketchup, Mr. Merritt, Mr. Nash, Mr. Eliot–and all those bloomin’ pelicans because…

    I know of a writer named Linda
    Who scrapes and sands all through the winta
    She’s into the blues
    Keeps well up on the news
    And thus by her blog we do linga

    (well, somebody had ta…):)

    Oh, hooray, ds!

    I’m giggling again….

    There’s nothing more fun, in the end,
    than playing with paper and pen
    Unless it be books
    read in third-storey nooks
    with a view and a very good friend!

    Linda

  12. Love this post – pure fun from beginning to end. And ds above reminded me of how much I loved The Owl and the Pussycat as a kid! In my mind’s eye the pea-green boat was a pea cut in half, used for sailing.
    Well done on being a hawt post. Wow! Kudos.

    Jeannine,

    So happy you enjoyed it. I’d forgotten the Owl and the Pussycat myself, not to mention the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat. I had no idea the actual title of their poem was “The Duel”, and I forgot they ate each other up! But I can see the illustrations as though the book itself were lying open in front of me. And I once saw an illustration of the Owl and the Pussycat that had your pea-boat.

    Thanks for the congrats. I really do think your odds for “hawtness” increase if you show up in the middle of a news cycle saturated with one or two stories with something completely off-the-wall. But that’s ok. I can do off-the-wall!

    Linda

  13. Besides loving all the pelicans and your way of writing, I was delighted to read the witty verses you chose to make your point. It reminded me of one I heard from a blind friend eons ago when I was in high school, and which I’ve never forgotten:

    TB or not TB.
    That is the congestion.
    Consumption be done about it?
    Of cough, of cough,
    But it takes a lung, lung time!

    Ginnie,

    I’m bubbling over – that is delightful! Parody ranks right up there with limericks on my list of things-fun-to-do-with-words. In many ways, they’re like gargoyles or those intricate, utterly unnecessary architechtural details you capture so well with your camera. While the spires inspire and the buttresses fly, we focus on the monkey with the silly face or the tiny, beautiful intertwined leaves and smile and smile.

    So nice to have you stop by!

    Linda

  14. Linda, how wonderful your images are. I love the different artistic pelicans. In and around Vero Beach, FL, they have a similar project with sea turtles!

    Have a great day!

    K

    Ken,

    Thanks so much for the kind words – as a novice photographer, I have a lot to learn, but I already understand the enjoyment of it all.

    Cows in Alberta, Snoopy in Minneapolis, sea turtles in Vero…. how long until someone hits the road with their camera to record all of the creatures hither and yon? Wouldn’t that be fun?

    Linda

  15. I don’t spend a lot of my reading time on poetry, but I do certainly enjoy it. I don’t see how one can enjoy the written word and not enjoy poetry. I love that you included so many examples that prove that poetry can be fun. I enjoy analyzing films and literature on a purely amateur level, but I’ve never had the desire to go any deeper than that because of what you mentioned. I wouldn’t want to suddenly be unable to enjoy movies or books because I was over analyzing them.

    I’m also thrilled to see the mention of ketchup on chicken legs. Of course you’ve probably grown out of it, but I’m still a ketchup on fried chicken fan!

    Hi, Carl,

    How nice to see you! Very kind of you to stop by. First things first – I’ll still do ketchup on chicken, but only on legs, not on white meat. Don’t ask me why – it just seems the way to do it!

    I’ve suffered – and suffered through – “analysis paralysis” in several fields, and have little patience for it any more. I laugh when I hear someone bring up that old bit about PhDs saying more and more about less and less until, finally, someone says everything about nothing, and I try my best to avoid the tendency.

    To put it (VERY) simplistically, words can be windows or bricks. Poets tend to use words as windows, and analysts tend to use words as bricks. That’s part of the reason too much analysis can move us so far afield the poem itself loses its ability to move us.

    In any event, we’re still free to have fun with our words, and that’s one of the greatest gifts there is.

    Happy 4th – hope your holiday is splendid.

    Linda

  16. Linda! I loved this entry! (Do I always say that here? well, yes, often!) But this one made me smile because of the bit about your elementary teacher and thank heaven for her and her influence and then the Pelican verse, which I “grew up” with and the pictures and the references to Merritt and to Ogden Nash. Everyone should know him and memorize one of his pieces – oh, I was delighted to find him in your entry.

    And your family’s ketchup bottle verse? I laughed out loud. My neighbor, working in his yard over yonder, heard me and looked up. And your father’s response with “it’s the verst” – just as hilarious.

    And how nice of you to refer to me in this – and a verse!!!

    OK, here’s one of my fave Nash verses because who else would appreciate it more?

    CELERY STEWED IS QUIETLY CHEWED
    WHILE CELERY RAW DEVELOPS THE JAW.

    (I may have inverted the lines, but it’s still good for non-sequitur use at the dinner table!)

    Oh,

    I’ve never heard the celery verse, and it’s a wonderful gift because I have a friend on another site who’s beside herself with excitement over the celery she’s planted. It’s growing, so now she can recite poetry to it!

    It truly has amazed me how many people know and respond to the pelican poem, not to mention Nash in general. I’m beginning to think there’s “comfort writing” just as there’s comfort food. It’s getting a bit harder to find such pieces, but there are poems and stories everyone knows and it makes us feel good to hear them. Start the pelican poem just about anywhere, and you’ll find someone willing to finish it out.

    And of course, there always are the wonderful word-play riddles. Example: How do you catch a unique rabbit? Answer: U nique up on it! :-)

    Hope your 4th was wonderful!

    Linda

  17. Delightful! (And to this day I sometimes put ketchup on scrambled eggs. Usually Tabasco though.)

    Happy Fourth!

    Hi, Ella,

    Glad you enjoyed it! Just a little summer-time fun to spice things up. And with the eggs, at least, I have moved on from ketchup, although my preference is pico de gallo rather than Tabasco. Same principle, though.

    Hope your holiday’s been delightful, too.

    Linda

  18. Where were the pelican statues, and where can I find more photos of them?

    Hi, Pam,

    They’re in Seabrook, Texas. The whole group is known as the Pelican Path Project, and you can find more information about it here. There are some more photos there, and if you do a google image search for “pelican path seabrook texas” you probably can find some more. I think there are some older ones not in the brochure because they were damaged by Ike. But they’re getting them all spiffed up now!

    Thanks for stopping by – if you have any more questions just let me know.

    Linda


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