Whether Eleanor Johnson met a pelican during the course of her lifetime, I can’t say. What is certain is that, had a pelican plummeted into our 5th grade classroom to perch atop her desk, Miss Johnson’s first words would have been, “Children! Quick! Take your pencils! Let’s write a poem about our unexpected visitor!”
Miss Johnson guided us capably enough through arithmetic and social studies lessons, but her first love was poetry. Obsessed with verse, she clearly intended that we should be equally obsessed. No doubt she would have preferred pouring poetry into our heads with a funnel but, lacking direct physical access to 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. We memorized stanzas and recited sonnets in front of the class until until we thought we would die of anxiety or boredom. When she assigned a two-hundred word theme on the topic What is poetry? groans of resistance echoed down hallways. Sighing as I examined the new burden she’d imposed, my distress was eased somewhat because I already had one answer to Miss Johnson’s question. Poetry, I’d learned, could be fun.
Sitting at my grandparents’ table one Sunday afternoon, I attempted to dislodge some ketchup from a newly-opened bottle by giving its bottom a firm, final whack. When the inevitable glob of sticky-sweet goo landed on my plate, everyone laughed, and someone quoted the 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. Every meatloaf or hamburgers-and-fries dinner after that brought it to mind. If I recited it more than once, my dad would peer at me over his glasses and say, “That’s not just verse, it’s the verst”. And I’d giggle again.
When it came time to memorize a longer poem for Miss Johnson, I chose Edward Lear’s 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!
In the midst of the memorization process, someone introduced me to a ditty called “The Mighty Pelican,” and and I memorized that, as well:
Behold the mighty pelican.
His beak holds more than his belican.
I don’t know how the helican,
but then, he is the pelican.
Loving the ditty only because it offered a chance to say “helican” without being chastised by an adult, I had no idea who’d written it. Later, I discovered it was a variation of a limerick written in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt, President of the American Press Humorists Association and an editor for The Tennessean, Nashville’s morning newspaper.
Today, many still attribute authorship to Ogden Nash, but it’s Merritt who deserves it. Here’s his poem, based on a postcard he received from a reader who’d visited 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.
Though I’m damned if I know how the helican.
Merrit’s poem was my introduction to limericks: a form I loved then, and still love today. I write them in my head constantly, and occasionally add one as a blog comment. When a friend mentioned that real-world obligations would necessitate erratic blog-posting for a time, I wrote:
There once was a writer named Oh!
with too many places to go.
She came and she went
while her blogging friends lent
her permission to be a no-show.
Unfortunately, poetry wasn’t always enjoyable.Falling into the hands of professors who took poetry as seriously as they took themselves, I emerged from college fairly well convinced that 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 dissect 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: poetic piles of simile, strips of metaphor, and occasional onomatopoeic bits — 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. The universe needs disturbing from time to time, and tossing a chunk of memorable words into the sea we call life isn’t the worst way to send messages rippling out to distant shores.
Unfortunately, passionate advocates for serious poetry can reinforce the misconception that poetry is meant solely for a literary or intellectual elite. Quite the opposite is true. Poetry is neither drab nor irrelevant; it’s meant to be enjoyed, both the writing and the reading of it, and the impulse toward poetry can pop up anywhere. Was Merritt’s postcard-inspired bit of doggerel important? Hardly. Has anyone analyzed it for deeper meaning? Probably not. But it’s fun and memorable, oft-quoted and quotable, and perfectly suited to be a jumping-off point for summer afternoons of verbal serve and volley.
In my neighborhood, I 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 brings smiles to tourists and residents alike. After their battering by Hurricane Ike, many had to be taken in for restoration, but now they’ve re-emerged: tucked into nooks and crannies of the town like snippets of verse dropped into dinnertable conversation.
Spying one for the first time, children are entranced. Suddenly discovering a new one, adults are delighted. People talk to them. Tourists take selfies with them. I saw a man rubbing the beak of the astronaut pelican as though he were rubbing the belly of the Buddha for luck, and a bride and groom insisted on topping their wedding cake with one of the birds.
Each time I see one I smile, rejoicing in 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.
I suppose as these pelicans go
some people would say, “Just for show”.
But they’re handsome and fun
as they bask in the sun
and inspire new verses to flow.