Of canaries and donkeys – celebrating National Poetry Day

Last Thursday, 1 October, was National Poetry Day. In a belated celebration of the event, I thought I’d share with you the only two poems I’m able to recite from memory. The first on my list is the work of the American poet Ogden Nash (1902-71), described on the Poetry Association website as “the most widely known, appreciated, and imitated American creator of light verse.”

Canary Literacy

PHOTO CREDIT: “Canary Literacy” by Jocelyn777 Love Europe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The verse in question runs to only 13 words, and therefore is clearly no Paradise Lost! On the other hand it has just the degree of cheeky irreverence guaranteed to appeal to a schoolboy growing up in the 1960s. Which I guess is why my teacher Mr Williams introduced us to it, and why, over half a century later, it still trips off the tongue. The Canary was published in Nash’s 1931 collection Free Wheeling, and still makes me chuckle today…maybe it’s the birdwatcher in me?

The song of canaries
Never varies,
And when they’re moulting
They’re pretty revolting.

My second poem is a lot more serious. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936), universally referred to as G K Chesterton, was an English author, journalist, critic, philosopher and theologian.

Just why my headmaster chose to display a poster bearing the text of Chesterton’s poem The Donkey in the main corridor at my primary school will forever remain a mystery. Thankfully he did, and at a time when my brain was like a turbo-charged sponge, desperate to absorb new ideas and images, I consumed it greedily. Chesterton’s words have remained with me ever since. Here they are:

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

If you are one of those people who prefers to listen to poetry, rather than to read if off the page, the link below will take you to a reading of The Donkey by Elric Hooper.

The Donkey celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As I am not, either by upbringing or instinct, even remotely religious, it may seem strange that this poem has stuck to me like glue for more than half a century. But the words have another, more profound meaning which resonated with me then and still does today.

In the first three verses Chesterton’s subject speaks to us directly of the contempt in which he is held by the world, contempt for his origins, his appearance and his lowly status. The donkey appears to us as a pathetic, self-loathing creature, lacking in confidence and eaten up by the ignorant and hateful way that others perceive him.

And yet…in the final verse we learn that he has a noble past, a back-story of which he is justly proud. The donkey has witnessed and been part of an extraordinary, world-changing event. He, no less than any of those who decry and despise him, is worthy of our respect, admiration and love.

File:Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, a fresco in the Lower Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Pietro Lorenzetti / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

And I guess that’s the philosophy by which I have lived my own life. The opinions held by others about our origins, outward appearance and social status are a mere distraction, an irrelevance, perhaps even a lie. We must look beneath the surface to perceive a deeper truth.

All lives have value, and all are worth living. We should never feel the need to apologise for what we are, and what we are not.

Instead of feeling imprisoned by other people’s perceptions of us, surely our focus should be on how each of us can best play the cards we have been dealt in order to help make the world a better place for ourselves, for our fellows and for all living things.

PHOTO CREDIT: Laraine Davis via Pexels

Each of us, guided by a spirit of tolerance and compassion, has the potential to do good. And each of us has the right, as well as the innate capability, to live a happy, fulfilling life untroubled by the negative opinions of those who would wish us ill.

Even donkeys can be beautiful.

22 comments

  1. tanjabrittonwriter · 24 Days Ago

    Good for the donkey for knowing his self-worth. But even though canaries are disheveled during their moult, I can’t agree with the poet’s characterization of their appearance. I always feel a tinge of pity for molting birds, as the process looks rather uncomfortable. Revolted I am not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 24 Days Ago

      Agreed. Birds always look miserable and sorry for themselves when they’re moulting, like teenagers when their acne flares. But just like acne, the moult is just a phase that has to be endured πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thelongview · 24 Days Ago

    Why “even donkeys”? Donkeys ARE beautiful. And baby donkeys are simply adorable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 24 Days Ago

      My wife said exactly the same thing, and gave me a stern telling off 😒. I explained that my reasons were literary only, an attempt to defend donkeys within the specific context of Chesterton’s poem. Pretentious? Yes, I hang my head in shame and remorse! For the record, I agree entirely with your second sentence. Sadly I don’t often encounter donkeys in the flesh, but it’s always a pleasure when I do.

      Like

      • thelongview · 24 Days Ago

        I was just quibbling, don’t hang your head 😊
        Yes, donkeys are becoming rate. In India, they were used by washermen to carry clothes. That of course has long been taken over by machines. But of late donkey milk is being touted as a great health drink and sells for a fortune. How we exploit the animals!

        Liked by 1 person

      • thelongview · 24 Days Ago

        Oh, and I’ve always loved that poem too! Hasn’t come across the canary one, but I can well imagine its appeal to a schoolboy!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · 23 Days Ago

        And I’m just a big kid today, which I guess is why I still like the canary poem so much πŸ™‚.

        Like

      • thelongview · 23 Days Ago

        😊😊

        Like

      • Platypus Man · 23 Days Ago

        I have no quibbles with quibbling πŸ™‚ When I was growing up more than half a century ago donkeys were a familiar sight at seaside holiday resorts, giving children rides along the beach. I don’t know how much that still happens. Outside the leisure industry I suspect working donkeys are a thing of the past here in the UK. Some landowners like to keep them as companion animals, either for themselves / their families, or even for lone horses. There is also a very active Donkey Sanctuary, which rescues abandoned and abused donkeys both from the UK and overseas. This link will tell you more about them https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/
        Donkey milk hasn’t caught on here yet, thankfully!

        Like

      • thelongview · 23 Days Ago

        Hee haw! That donkey sanctuary looks amazing. In exchange, here’s one we saw on a trip to Ladakh several years ago:
        http://donkeysanctuary.in/index.html

        Liked by 1 person

  3. krikitarts · 24 Days Ago

    The Chesterton poem is new to me, and I thank you for introducing it. I, also, am in full agreement with your statement that others’ opinions of us are [usually] mere distractions. And I have met a number of lovely and memorable donkeys!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 24 Days Ago

      Glad you like the poem. I worked with a few donkeys in my day, but the less said about them the better πŸ˜‚.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ann Mackay · 23 Days Ago

    The canary poem made me laugh, but i’d be sympathetic rather than revolted – we all have our ‘bad-hair days’! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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