Whether Eleanor Johnson had the pleasure of meeting a pelican during the course of her lifetime, I can’t say. What I know is that, had a pelican plummeted into our 5th grade classroom and perched atop her desk, the first words out of Miss Johnson’s mouth would have been, “Children! Quick! Get out your pencils! Let’s write a poem about our unexpected visitor!”
One of my favorite teachers, Miss Johnson guided us capably enough through lessons in arithmetic and social studies, but her first love was poetry. Obsessed with verse, she clearly hoped to inculcate that same obsession in her little charges. She would have poured poetry into our heads with a funnel if she’d been able, but lacking direct physical access to our distracted childhood brains, she did the next best thing – nagging, cajoling, insisting and assigning until we nearly collapsed under the weight of her enthusiasm.
We read biographies of poets, memorized stanzas and recited sonnets in front of the class until until we thought we were going to throw up from the anxiety of it all. When we were assigned our first written theme, an unhappy exercise meant to answer the question What is poetry? groans of disapproval and resistance echoed down the halls. 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 slightly by knowing I already had one answer to Miss Johnson’s question, an answer I suspected she might approve. Poetry, to my way of thinking, was fun.
I learned my first “poem” at my grandparents’ table. In the process of trying to dislodge some ketchup from a newly-opened bottle, I gave its bottom one firm, final whack and the inevitable sticky-sweet glob of goo landed on my plate. Everyone laughed, and someone quoted those immortal words.
”Shake and shake the ketchup bottle.
First a little, then a lot’ll.”
It had rhythm, it had rhyme, and the sound of the words made me giggle. From that day forward, every dinnertime menu that included meatloaf or hamburgers and fries became an occasion to recite the poem. Usually, I’d recite it more than once, causing my Dad to look at me over his glasses and say, “That’s not just verse, it’s the verst”. And I’d giggle again.
I’d always been a great fan of Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, so when it came time to memorize a “big poem” for Miss Johnson, I chose his marvelous Pelican’s Chorus. The refrain made me laugh as much as my ketchup bottle, and introduced me to the pleasure of painting with words rather than watercolors.
We live on the Nile. The Nile we love.
By night we sleep on the cliffs above;
By day we fish, and at eve we stand
On long bare islands of yellow sand.
And when the sun sinks slowly down
And the great rock walls grow dark and brown,
Where the purple river rolls fast and dim
And the Ivory Ibis starlike skim,
Wing to wing we dance around,
Stamping our feet with a flumpy sound,
Opening our mouths as Pelicans ought,
And this is the song we nighly snort;
Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!
We think no Birds so happy as we!
Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill!
We think so then, and we thought so still!
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to 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 that poem was getting to say ”helican” without being swatted by an adult. Later, I began to collect variants of the ditty, originally penned in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt, an editor for The Tennessean, Nashville’s morning paper. Ogden Nash often receives credit for the tribute to the wondrous bird, but it’s 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 to him by a reader who’d been visiting Florida, and this was the inspired result.
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. I still do, and I’m constantly writing them in my head. Occasionally, I’ll drop a comment into someone’s blog in limerick form, as I did when a friend said real-world obligations would be keeping her busy for a time and her posting would be erratic.
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 always been enjoyable, let alone fun-and-games. Eventually I fell into the hands of professors 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 “real poets” had to be suicidal, anti-social or drunk on absinthe. 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 apart a poem, searching for meaning as we laid bare its structure. We might as well have been in biology lab. Poems became metaphorical equivalents to the one-pound frogs scattered about our dissecting tables. Like the frog’s skin, tissue and bones, those piles of simile, strips of metaphor and occasional onomatopoeic bits were vaguely interesting but entirely dead.
Of course, not every poem can – or should be – reduced to the chipper slogan, “Let’s Make Poetry Fun!” There’s a time to take poetry seriously, and to write serious poems. When the poster celebrating the 2009 Poetry Month 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”. The universe needs disturbing from time to time, after all, and tossing a chunk of memorable words into the sea we call life isn’t the worst way to send effects rippling out to even the farthest cosmic shore.
Unfortunately, promoting poetry by T.S. Eliot can reinforce the common misconception that poetry is meant solely for a literary or intellectual elite. Quite the opposite is true. Poetry is neither drab nor irrelevant and it’s meant to be enjoyed, both the writing and the reading of it. The impulse toward poetry can pop up anywhere, as Merritt’s famous pelican-postcard-inspired bit of doggerel demonstrates. Was his poem “important”? Hardly. Has anyone ever analyzed it for deeper meaning? Probably not. But it’s fun and memorable, oft-quoted and quotable, perfectly suited to be a jumping-off point for summer afternoons of verbal serve and volley.
Living where I do, 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 the Pelican Path Project in Seabrook, Texas, a collection of non-migratory birds that bring smiles to tourists and residents alike. After being battered by Hurricane Ike, 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 around a dinner table.
Spying one for the first time, children are entranced. Suddenly discovering a “new one”, adults are delighted. People talk to them. Tourists have their photos taken with them. I saw one fellow rubbing the beak of the astronaut pelican as though he were rubbing the belly of of the Buddha for luck, and a bride and groom once had a replica atop their wedding cake. Every time I see one I smile, astonished and delighted by their variety and by the creative vision that populated the town with such elegant birds. Every now and then, I wish Dixon Lanier Merritt and Miss Johnson could see them. I can only imagine what they’d think, but I suspect Miss Johnson would have her pencil out, ready to write a poem.
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.