What’s My Lion? A Zooful of Poetry

Lively animal poems to share with children and grandchildren

Video and Photos are from the First Poetry Quartet’s Visit to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park.

Sitting for our formal portrait.

It’s a beautiful day!
It’s a wonderful day!
It’s a day to go to the zoo!
We’ll have a chat with a kangaroo,
We’ll ask the antelope “What’s g-nu?”
And pause for a word
With a tropical bird,
Or offer a laugh
To amuse a giraffe,
It’s a beautiful day!
It’s a wonderful day!
It’s a marvelous day!
It’s a glorious day!
And we’re on our way
To the zoo!

It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and with families gathering together, it seems like a good time to present some lively animal poems that can be shared with children and grandchildren. Particularly I hope you will show them the video at the end of the column.

I’m not sure whether this will be a pack of poems or a herd of verse, but it will introduce you to animals and birds who have inspired the likes of such poets as A.A. Milne, John Ciardi, Richard Armour, and most particularly, Ogden Nash, who wrote a multitude of animal poems including the famous verses for “Carnival of the Animals.” He is well-represented in today’s column and wrote one of my favorite couplets:

God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.

(That’s not exactly a zoo poem, but I assume because there’s room we might find flies at the zoo.)
More grandly, what can you expect to find at the zoo? Well, A.A. Milne (1882-1956) tells us all about it in his book, “When We Were Very Young,” and he reminds us what it was like for a child who was hearing some animal names for the very first time:

There are lions and roaring tigers,
and enormous camels and things,
There are biffalo-buffalo-bisons,
and a great big bear with wings.
There’s a sort of a tiny potamus,
and a tiny nosserus too –
But I gave buns to the elephant
when I went down to the Zoo!

There are badgers and bidgers and bodgers,
and a Super-in-tendent’s House,
There are masses of goats, and a Polar,
and different kinds of mouse,
And I think there’s a sort of a something
which is called a wallaboo –
But I gave buns to the elephant
when I went down to the Zoo!

If you try to talk to the bison,
he never quite understands;
You can’t shake hands with a mingo –
he doesn’t like shaking hands.
And lions and roaring tigers
hate saying, “How do you do?” –
But I give buns to the elephant
when I go down to the Zoo!

Translations for Grown-ups

Boston-born poet, John Ciardi, (1916-1986) included among his works fourteen books of children’s poetry. We’ll be talking about turtles and tortoises later, but for sweetness of spirit, nothing can match this piece by Ciardi:

“I am home,” said the turtle, as it pulled in its head
And its feet, and its tail. “I am home, and in bed.”
“No matter what inches and inches I roam,
When the long day is done, I am always at home.
“I may go whole feet . . . even yards . . . in a day,
But I never get lost, for I’m never away
“From my snug little house and my snug little bed.
Try being a turtle! – That’s using your head!
“You can go on forever, no matter how far,
And whatever you need is wherever you are!”
(“Is there one thing I miss when I’m snuggled in tight?
Yes: there’s no room for someone to kiss me good night.”)

Everyone takes a camera to the zoo. Here are some poetry-style snapshots. First, from Joseph Newman (1891-1960. Paul Newman’s uncle):

I’m fascinated by the zoo,
I go as often as I can.
Especially I love to watch
The anthropoid orangutan.

I stare at him in wonderment
And speculate on Nature’s plan:
That from so low a chromosome
His forbears and my own began.

But doubtless as I contemplate
This member of the monkey clan,
And marvel at the man-like ape,
He marvels at the ape-like man.

Ogden Nash honored on the popular (?) 37 cent stamp.

And from Ogden Nash (1902-1971):

The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn’t been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Don’t anther.

But now, I’d like you to join Cynthia Herman, Jill Tanner, George Backman and Victor Bevine of the First Poetry Quartet as they tour the remarkable San Diego Zoo and Safari Park (video link below). The poets who will guide them include Richard Armour, N.H. Brettell, Walt Whitman, Oliver Herford, Charles Edward Carryl, Rachel Field, Herbert Asquith, and yes, Ogden Nash.