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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