April 12, 2016

Friday, April 4, 2014

Source Poems: "Hannibal Clim"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Welcome, Poetry Friday readers! Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is kicking off the Poetry Friday blogging community's National Poetry Month celebration. She's got a menagerie of poetry, reviews, and NPM projects listed at her blog, The Poem Farm.

Today's guest blogger is Maryland poet and adult ESL educator J. C. Elkin. Jane visited Author Amok in January to talk about her new poetry collection World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom [read the post].

J. C. Elkin
I recently spent three days with my brother on a road trip home to New Hampshire. We’ve grown in different directions over the years, yet we still connect over the shared experiences of childhood: old television and radio hits, family anecdotes sparked by passing road signs, and poems learned before we could read.

Like an anonymous ghost with no descendants, the poem Hannibal Clim still haunts us fifty years later. Our mother would recite it in hushed tones and crisp consonants with three kids crushed against her in awestruck wonder as she illustrated each phrase with dramatic pauses and eloquent body language. My brother and I talked about that poem for half an hour -- how it had endured as one of our strongest memories and how we both were so frustrated at not being able to recall it in its entirety that we had each Googled it, only to come up empty-handed. Yet together we were able to recall most of the poem:

            Hannibal Clim was a very big dragon
            with a very long tail much too heavy for waggin’
            and very small eyes that always were blinking
            and a very small brain much too tired for thinking.

            Yep, Hannibal Clim was the biggest old dragon
            you ever did see, and that isn’t braggin’.
            But I wouldn’t dare tell you Hannibal’s size,
            for you’d shiver and tremble and roll back your eyes.

            You’d probably blame me, and you would be right,
            for it would keep you from sleeping at night. . .

            So I won’t.

I thought she read it from a book because I had a clear image of the dragon illustrated in vibrant peacock colors with a brontosaurus-like head, but my brother said I was confusing it with another story about a dragon who was so large and slow that he had to bite himself each night when he went to bed in order for the pain to travel up his long tail to his brain and awaken him in the morning. [AA: This one sounds familiar to me, too. Maybe it's in Dr. Seuss's The Sleep Book, or a collection by Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky.]

I had forgotten that story until he reminded me. He argued that if Hannibal Clim had ever been in a book, Google would have found it, so maybe he’s right. Our story, then, is a testament to the power of oral tradition, and I wonder how many generations of mothers have told it? Maybe one of my readers knows the answer along with the missing couplet and author’s name.

With dragon stories figuring so prominently in my youth, it’s a wonder I’m not a fantasy writer, yet I see in Hannibal Clim two elements that are central to much of my poetry: narrative and rhythm. Storytelling with descriptive imagery has always been my main concern, and as a singer I am equally obsessed with the rhythm of speech. I’ve learned to live without rhyme, but admit I’m still a big fan even though it has fallen out of fashion.

Hannibal Clim also taught me a lesson about content that I still strive to remember in my work: the power of mystery. Just as Anonymous never told me Hannibal’s size, I need to resist the urge to spell out the answers to all the questions I pose, because writing is about communicating a universal message that each reader internalizes in his own way based on his own experiences. After all, my definition of a “big” dragon may not be the same as yours. Best to leave the reader wondering a little.

Are you Hannibal Clim?
Jane Elkin is the founder and facilitator of The Broadneck Writers’ Workshop, as well as a theater critic and essayist for the Bay Weekly. Her prose and poetry have appeared in such journals as Kestrel, Kansas City Voices, Off the Coast and Ducts, and she has won awards with the Maryland Writers’ Association, Poetry Matters, and the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. A self-proclaimed Renaissance Woman, she works as a language teacher, singer, and handwriting analyst. 

Jane's poem and the story behind it remind me of my family's love of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." [The Muppets perform the poem here.] My brother, daughter, and I all know the poem by heart -- to the sometimes dismay of our other family members. Jane's post speaks to poetry as a shared experience.

Is there someone out there who shared Jane's experience of hearing "Hannibal Clim" as a child? If you know the author or source of the poem, please leave a comment. Perhaps you have a source for the long-tailed dragon who uses its tail as an alarm clock? Join the conversation and let us know what you know.

[Update -- there IS such a creature in The Sleep Book, but it may not be a dragon. Check back for an update on the update.] 


Amy LV said...

Wow! What a neat post. "Hannibal Clim" is a riot - and I am copying it into my notebook to carry on the tradition. Thank you to both of you! I could not agree more about the power of mystery. It is do important. Happy Poetry Friday!

Linda B said...

I enjoyed all your connections, but especially that you and your brother pieced together this memory of the poem. Those moments in our childhood are not just "sweet" ones, but frame our lives more than we know, don't they, as the rest of your post shares. Thank you!

Tara said...

Love the way this poem was so knit within the shared experience with your brother.

Irene Latham said...

I never knew Hannibal Clim until today... but I did lovelovelove Waldo the Jumping Dragon (a picture book) and Serendipity (the dragon). Yes to mystery! And what a pretty kitty!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

I hope someone can help credit ol' Hannibal-- he's far too memorable to be forgotten! My husband still remembers Jabberwocky from his childhood and my son is in the process of memorizing it now, for school and pleasure. :)

GatheringBooks said...

I've always considered myself a dragon child - or a mother of dragons (very Khaleesi) as I was born in the year of the dragon. I love this lost oral tradition and the hunt for the missing Hannibal Clim - and that gorgeous image! Quite apt, I thought.

Margaret Simon said...

What a fine mystery, complete with siblings and dragons and a mother. The shared memory is so special. A way to keep the bonds of family strong.

Tabatha said...

Maybe it was an unpublished poem, one that J.C.'s mom heard from the person who wrote it?

Mary Lee said...

This is such a fascinating series! I'm thinking about what might be MY source poem(s)!!

BJ Lee said...

Ha! So interesting - this poem and the two of you trying to remember it and how it has kept you bonded even though you've grown apart in other ways. This is the way it is with me and my 3 brothers too so your post really resonated with me. Thank you. I was very touched.

Author Amok said...

I've heard from a few folks both here and on Facebook. So far, our poetry community hasn't been able to discover the whereabouts (or the whoabouts) of Hannibal Clim. Anyone willing to take on this poetry cold case?

Robyn Hood Black said...

So intriguing... A dragon mystery! Loved this post and the way Jane connected the power of poetry with those first and basic family relationships. Wonderful.

Liz Steinglass said...

What a great memory of your mother to share with your brother. I haven't heard of this dragon but I have a real fondness for Nash's Custard the Dragon.

Jane Elkin said...

I'm so pleased that Hannibal connected with you all, and eager to go look up Ogden Nash's Custard the dragon. My mother LOVED Ogden Nash, another regular in our poetry reading sessions. Thanks, Liz.

Renee LaTulippe said...

I love that although Hannibal's original whereabouts and "whoabouts" remain a mystery, Jane has returned him to the world through the wonderful powers of the internet! If his heritage is lost, I vote we finish that last couplet to keep this dragon flying!