. Good Morning!
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The question is, are we happy to suppose
that our grandchildren may never be able
to see an elephant except in a picture book?
– David Attenborough
The elephant is the largest land animal on earth. There has been some form of elephant on planet Earth for at least 55 million years. But this could all too easily change before the end of the 21st century.
In Asia, there may be fewer than 50,000 elephants remaining, more than half of them in India. Small herds of elephants, under increasing pressure, still inhabit some pockets of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas.
In Africa, somewhere over 400,000 but less than 500,000 elephants still roam the continent, mostly in southern Africa. In the west and the forested center, African elephants are in the greatest peril of disappearing. Compare these numbers to a 1930 estimate that about 10 million wild elephants roamed the African continent.
For thousands of years, humans have killed elephants for their ivory tusks. For most of that time, it was very difficult and dangerous to kill an elephant, but the invention of firearms has made it possible to kill a lot more elephants from a much safer distance. In the 19th century, big game hunting began wiping out whole herds of elephants across the continent of Africa. Today’s elephants face not only local hunters, but modern poaching gangs, financed by Asian syndicates.
The elephant has long been a symbol of strength, good fortune, and long memory for humans. Many writers have been inspired by the elephant, including the poets featured this morning.
This poem is a more general comment about all the animals which may soon be extinct, and that combination of hope and anxiety that many of us feel as their numbers keep dropping.
by Susan Kinsolving
Trust that there is a tiger, muscular
Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been
seen and never will be seen by any human
eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword-
fish will never near a ship, that far
from cameras or cars elephant herds live
long elephant lives. Believe that bees
by the billions find unidentified flowers
on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe
in caves of contentment, bears sleep.
Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly
snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun.
I must trust all this to be true, though
the few birds at my feeder watch the window
with small flutters of fear, so like my own.
“Trust” from The White Eyelash © 2003 by Susan Kinsolving – Grove Press
Susan Kinsolving was born in Elmhurst, Illinois. Her poetry collections include The White Eyelash, Dailies & Rushes and Peripheral Vision. She has also written librettos for the Baroque Choral Guild and the Glimmerglass Opera.
The next two poems are so different, but they are both about elephants performing as musicians in captivity.
Hollow Boom Soft Chime:
The Thai Elephant Orchestra
by Sarah Lindsay
A sound of far-off thunder from instruments
ten feet away: drums, a log,
a gong of salvage metal. Chimes
of little Issan bells, pipes in a row, sometimes
a querulous harmonica.
Inside the elephant orchestra’s audience,
bubbles form, of shame and joy, and burst.
Did elephants look so sad and wise,
a tourist thinks, her camera cold in her pocket,
before we came to say they look sad and wise?
Did mastodons have merry, unwrinkled faces?
Hollow boom soft chime, stamp of a padded foot,
tingle of renaat, rattle of angklung.
This music pauses sometimes, but does not end.
Prathida gently strokes the bells with a mallet.
Poong and his mahout regard the gong.
Paitoon sways before two drums,
bumping them, keeping time with her switching tail.
Sales of recordings help pay for their thin enclosure
of trampled grass. They have never lived free.
Beside a dry African river
their wild brother lies, a punctured balloon,
torn nerves trailing from the stumps of his tusks.
Hollow boom soft chime, scuff of a broad foot,
sometimes, rarely, a blatting elephant voice.
They seldom attend the instruments
without being led to them, but, once they’ve begun,
often refuse to stop playing.
“Hollow Boom Soft Chime: The Thai Elephant Orchestra” © 2011 by Sarah Lindsay – Poetry Magazine, May 2011 issue
And the Elephant Played Ukulele
by Patti Masterson
Got together with some friends downtown,
Played some songs, and we all got down;
Flamingo, and Lizard, and Elephant too,
Made some sounds that we thought were true-
We used to get down in the Brooklyn zoo-
And the elephant played ukulele.
Flamingo did horns with only his bill,
And the Lizard did zither, up and down the hill;
Only Lizard had an opposable thumb,
But we beat out the boards to sound our drum-
From miles away the people’d all come-
And the elephant played ukulele.
Flamingo was flashy in her drapes of pink,
And Lizard was faster than a sneaky wink,
While Elephant was broad, and sat on a tree,
And it was mostly him that you’d see-
With Flamingo and Lizard, one on each knee-
And the elephant played ukulele.
Those were the days I truly miss,
And sometimes Snake came to add his hiss;
He could hiss just like a tambourine,
And the people’s faces, you should’ve seen-
The sound was everything, when it got mean-
And the elephant played ukulele.
I found a large number of poems by this poet online, but no biographical information and no evidence of published works.
These two poems were both inspired by the same fable about blind men “seeing” an elephant.
The Blind Man and the Elephant
by John Godfrey Saxe
It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind),
that each by observation, might satisfy his mind.
The first approached the elephant, and, happening to fall,
against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
‘God bless me! but the elephant, is nothing but a wall!’
The second feeling of the tusk, cried: ‘Ho! what have we here,
so very round and smooth and sharp? To me tis mighty clear,
this wonder of an elephant, is very like a spear!’
The third approached the animal, and, happening to take,
the squirming trunk within his hands, ‘I see,’ quoth he,
the elephant is very like a snake!’
The fourth reached out his eager hand, and felt about the knee:
‘What most this wondrous beast is like, is mighty plain,’ quoth he;
‘Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree.’
The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said; ‘E’en the blindest man
can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an elephant, is very like a fan!’
The sixth no sooner had begun, about the beast to grope,
than, seizing on the swinging tail, that fell within his scope,
‘I see,’ quothe he, ‘the elephant is very like a rope!’
And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long,
each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
tread on in utter ignorance, of what each other mean,
and prate about the elephant, not one of them has seen!
John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) was born in Vermont, American poet best known for his poem re-telling the Indian parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant” which is credited with introducing the fable to American readers.
An Elephant in the Dark
Some Hindus have an elephant to show.
No one here has ever seen an elephant.
They bring it at night to a dark room.
One by one, we go in the dark and come out
saying how we experience the animal.
One of us happens to touch the trunk.
“A water-pipe kind of creature.”
Another, the ear. “A very strong,
always moving back and forth, fan-animal.”
Another, the leg. “I find it still,
like a column on a temple.”
Another touches the curved back.
“A leathery throne.”
Another, the cleverest, feels the tusk.
“A rounded sword made of porcelain.”
He’s proud of his description.
Each of us touches one place
and understands the whole in that way.
The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark are
how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.
If each of us held a candle there,
and if we went in together,
we could see it.
– translated by Coleman Barks
Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī) was born in 1207; Persian poet, Islamic scholar, and Sufi mystic. His works have influenced the literary traditions in Persian, Turkish, Chagatai, Urdu and Pashto, and have been widely translated into many languages.
The Elephant is Slow to Mate
by D.H. Lawrence
The elephant, the huge old beast,
is slow to mate;
he finds a female, they show no haste
for the sympathy in their vast shy hearts
slowly, slowly to rouse
as they loiter along the river-beds
and drink and browse
and dash in panic through the brake
of forest with the herd,
and sleep in massive silence, and wake
together, without a word.
So slowly the great hot elephant hearts
grow full of desire,
and the great beasts mate in secret at last,
hiding their fire.
Oldest they are and the wisest of beasts
so they know at last
how to wait for the loneliest of feasts
for the full repast.
They do not snatch, they do not tear;
their massive blood
moves as the moon-tides, near, more near
till they touch in flood.
D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) born David Herbert Lawrence, English writer and poet. He spent much of his literary career battling censorship, which continued even after his death. When Penguin Books published the first full unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain in 1960, the publisher was tried under the Obscene Publications Act, and the trial became headline news, with a parade of famous writers called to testify as to the book’s literary merit. The verdict of “not guilty” led to greater freedom to publish explicit material in Great Britain.
by Hilaire Belloc
When people call this beast to mind,
They marvel more and more
At such a little tail behind,
So large a trunk before.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was born near Paris just a few days before the Franco-Prussian War began. His family fled to England when news came of the French army’s collapse, returning after the war’s end to discover that their home had been looted and vandalized by Prussian soldiers. This was followed by his father’s death, leaving his English mother in difficult financial circumstances, and she returned with her children to England. In 1892, Belloc joined the French Artillery Service in France for a year. Back in England, he became a student at Baillol College, Oxford, then wrote for London newspapers and magazines. In 1896, his first book, Verses and Sonnets, appeared, followed by The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, the original offering of his satiric verses which remain popular to this day.
- African elephant mother and baby
- Cedar bird feeder
- The Thai Elephant Orchestra – photo by Millie Young
- Elephant ukulele
- The blind men’s elephant
- Indian adolescent male elephant – photo by FEB Nishant-Srinivasaiah
- Pair of African Elephants – photo by Jim Brandenberg
- The Bad Child’s Book Of Beasts – Elephant – Hilaire Belloc