Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, November 23, 2014



I was walking to Stanley Park from my hotel in downtown Vancouver on November 10 when I came upon a boat named Velleity. What a perfect name for a boat sitting in a harbor! Of course, the word velleity has always seemed singularly descriptive of me, ever since I discovered it in an Ogden Nash poetry book. He died in 1971, when he was just 68, but his daughters compiled a collection of their favorite poems, I Wouldn't Have Missed It, that came out in 1975. I read about it in a newspaper and when my father gave me some birthday money that year, I headed straight to a bookstore to buy it. Now that I think about it, that may be one of the very few instances in my life when I did not suffer from velleity.

Ogden Nash is one of my favorite poets for many, many reasons. He wrote a great many cool poems about birds and a long one I often recite from memory titled Up from the Egg: The Confessions of a Nuthatch Avoider. His poem about velleity may have nothing to do with birds, but it has a lot to do with me.

Where There's a Will, There's Velleity 
Seated one day at the dictionary I was pretty weary and also pretty ill at ease,
Because a word I had always liked turned out not to be a word at all, and suddenly I found myself among the v's.
And suddenly among the v's I came across a new word which was a word called velleity,
So the new word I found was better than the old word I lost, for which I thank my tutelary deity,
Because velleity is a word which gives me great satisfaction,
Because do you know what it means, it means low degree of volition not prompting to action,
And I always knew I had something holding me back but I didn't know what,
And it's quite a relief to know it isn't a conspiracy, it's only velleity that I've got,
Because to be wonderful at everything has always been my ambition,
Yes indeed, I am simply teeming with volition,
So why I never was wonderful at anything was something I couldn't see
While all the time, of course, my volition was merely volition of a low degree,
Which is the kind of volition that you are better off without it,
Because it puts an idea in your head but doesn't prompt you to do anything about it.
So you think it would be nice to be a great pianist but why bother with practicing for hours at the keyboard,
Or you would like to be the romantic captain of a romantic ship but can't find time to study navigation or charts of the ocean or the seaboard;
You want a lot of money but you are not prepared to work for it,
Or a book to read in bed but you do not care to go into the nocturnal cold and murk for it;
And now if you have any such symptoms you can identify your malady with accurate spontaneity:
It's velleity,
So don't forget to remember that you're velleitous, and if anybody says you're just lazy,
Why, they're crazy.

By Ogden Nash from I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1938, and also in I Wouldn't Have Missed It: Selected Poems of Ogden Nash, 1975 (Simply the best collection of Nash poems until someone puts together a Complete Works, which I really hope happens someday.)