The Poets’ Birds: Pelicans

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. Continue reading

The Pleasures of Pelecanus Poeticus

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. Continue reading

Musée des Petroleums Arts

 

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

 

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:

 

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

 

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;

 

the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water,

 

and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 The suffering of the oil-laden Gulf of Mexico goes on. Like the suffering of Icarus in W.H. Auden’s insightful Musée des Beaux Arts, it is in some ways a strange suffering, partly accidental, partly brought about by hubris and nearly invisible to the world surrounding it.  But it is suffering, nonetheless, and Brueghel’s depiction of its reality is masterful. Continue reading

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…

 

 
Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.