Friday, 8 June 2012

Elephant No. 250: Abecedarian

I didn't feel like physically making anything today, so I thought I'd try a form of poetry instead.

An abecedarian, as the name implies, is a poem guided by the alphabet. In this ancient poetical form, each line or stanza of the poem begins with the first letter of the alphabet, followed by the next letter and so on.

The earliest examples are found in Hebrew religious poetry. As a form, abecedarians were frequently used in the sacred writings of many ancient civilizations. Psalm 119 in the King James Version of the Bible is one of the best-known of these, consisting of 22 eight-line stanzas—one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Another famous early example is An ABC by medieval English writer Geoffrey Chaucer. This translation of a French prayer features 23 eight-line stanzas that follow the alphabet, leaving out the letters J, U, V and W.

Today, abecedarians are most commonly written as word games and memory aids for children. Some of the most fun versions of these—even for adults—are Dr. Seuss's ABC by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) and The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. One of my favourite couplets from The Gashlycrumb Tinies is the following:

M is for Maud who was swept out to sea
N is for Neville who died of ennui

To see the whole text of this fun little abecedarian book, with illustrations, click here.

Front cover of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, 1963.

For today's elephant, I decided to write a 26-line poem, in which each line would begin with a letter of the alphabet. For the metre, I decided on rhyming couplets.

I started by coming up with 26 elephant-related words. I wanted two-syllable words, because they would make the "A is for Apple" 10-beat rhythm structure work better.

At first I struggled with words related to elephant behaviour, such as "banana" and "trunk", but there are surprisingly few relevant two-syllable words. Then I decided I'd try using the names of real elephants, filled in with details from their actual lives. This worked much better, although it was a bit of a chore to go through all of my previous posts to dig out the names.

For anything I've covered in a previous blog post, I've put a link to that post, for those who want to read more about a particular elephant. Just click on the link and go to Elephant Lore of the Day at the bottom of the page.

Anyway, for better or worse, here is my final abecedarian poem:

A is for Abul, who lived with a king;
B is for Batyr, who could talk but not sing.
C is for Citta, who picks winning teams;
D is for Dally, Alp-climbing queen. 
E is for Elmer, giving safety advice;
F is for Frankie—party gone in a trice.
G is for Ganesh, the god of new things;
H is for Hansken, drawn by Rembrandt van Rijn.
I is for Icy Mike, who climbed up quite far;
J is for Jumbo, a true circus star.
K is for Kandula, mascot supreme;
L is for Lallah, who swam a big stream.
M is for Mlaika, who mimicked a truck;
N is for Norma Jean, whom lightning struck.
O is for Old Bet, America's first;
P is for Pangal, treeing man who coerced.
Q is for Queenie, who could waterski; 
R is for Rajan, who swims in the sea. 
S is for Surus, ride of Hannibal;
T is for Tuffi, who jumped in Wuppertal.
U is from Umna, who was cured of colic;
V is for Victor, whose rage was no frolic.
W is for white, a gift you don't need;
X marks the spot, which Happy can see.
Y is for Yunnan, with fruits eles enjoy;
Z is for zigzag, a good pachyderm ploy.

This was a surprisingly difficult activity. I don't know if it's always this hard, but finding relevant words within a specific category for every letter of the alphabet was tricky. And, because I based this mostly on actual elephants, finding rhymes that related to their stories was also challenging—particularly when I had so few words in each line, and had to rhyme the lines in pairs.

In some ways, I think it would have been more fun to do something in which I made up a bunch of elephant names and just attached weird behaviours to them. Then again, the effort above took me over three hours, so I wasn't really willing to try again today.

The structure of an abecedarian is deceptively simple to a reader, but devilishly hard to construct. I would rank this right up there with my palindromes of a several weeks ago, and wouldn't be easily tempted to tackle this again anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In today's abecedarian, there are two elephants I haven't written about before. So today I thought I'd write about Rajan, said to be the last working ocean elephant in the world.

As I wrote in a previous post, elephants are excellent swimmers, and once swam regularly from island to island in the Bay of Bengal. Using their trunks as snorkels, elephants either swim completely underwater, or with their heads sticking out.

In 2011, 61-year-old Rajan retired from a life of swimming in the ocean around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. As a logging elephant, Rajan was accustomed to swimming from island to island, often pushing logs.

In 2008, Rajan's owner Nazrul had taken out a large loan to buy Rajan. Although Nazrul could ill afford it, he took out the loan to prevent Rajan's owners from sending him to work in a forest far from the sea. To help pay off the loan and ultimately buy Rajan's full freedom, Nazrul allowed photographers to dive with Rajan and take pictures and video for a small fee.

Nazrul sitting on Rajan's tusks, Havelock Island, India, 2011

According to those who have been able to swim with Rajan, he never swims unless he wants to, and swims a bit like a very large dog. Because of a lifetime spent in the sea, the saltwater doesn't appear to bother his eyes. Rajan also appears to be a bit of a ham, aware that he is swimming for the cameras.

Although Rajan loves the sea—as do most elephants—Nazrul has decided to retire Rajan to live out the rest of his life on land. Rajan still lives close to the ocean and has daily dips, but no longer swims from island to island.

Rajan swimming off the coast of Havelock Island, India, 2011.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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