Skip to main content

Howard Nemerov's "A Primer of the Daily Round” and Kay Ryan's "Home to Roost"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of “A Primer of the Daily Round”

Howard Nemerov's "A Primer of the Daily Round" uses the alphabet to make a generalized statement about what might be happening in the world of humanity in any given time frame.

The speaker personifies each letter of the alphabet, giving each human qualities and the capability to act. All of the activities are ones that people actually do, in fact, perform in the daily round.

"A Primer of the Daily Round" is an English sonnet, with the traditional form of three quatrains and a couplet, with the rime scheme, ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

A Primer of the Daily Round

A peels an apple, while B kneels to God,
C telephones to D, who has a hand
On E’s knee, F coughs, G turns up the sod
For H’s grave, I do not understand
But J is bringing one clay pigeon down
While K brings down a nightstick on L’s head,
And M takes mustard, N drives to town,
O goes to bed with P, and Q drops dead,
R lies to S, but happens to be heard
By T, who tells U not to fire V
For having to give W the word
That X is now deceiving Y with Z,
Who happens, just now to remember A
Peeling an apple somewhere far away.

Reading of "A Primer of the Daily Round"

Commentary on “A Primer of the Daily Round”

This piece plays out in an English sonnet form. The clever idea of the poem is somewhat marred by the questionable shift to first person for the letter "I" while all of the others express in third person.

First Quatrain: An "I" Conundrum

A peels an apple, while B kneels to God,
C telephones to D, who has a hand
On E’s knee, F coughs, G turns up the sod
For H’s grave, I do not understand

In the first Elizabethan style sonnet quatrain, the alphabet characters A through I appear: A is peeling an apple, while B is praying. C places a phone call to D, and D is placing his hand on the knees of E.

Unrelatedly, F coughs. G digs the grave for H's burial. At this point, the speaker of the narrative seems to insert himself to proclaim, "I do not understand."

Yet it seems that the grammar should indicate, "I" "does" not understand, because one would expect "I" to be a character in the same sense as all the others letters. Thus, the reader is left with a conundrum.

Second Quatrain: Interspersed Violence

But J is bringing one clay pigeon down
While K brings down a nightstick on L’s head,
And M takes mustard, N drives to town,
O goes to bed with P, and Q drops dead,

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

The next set of letter-characters continues with their various activities: J is shooting at clay pigeons, while K is rapping L over the head with a nightstick. M prefers mustard on his sandwich. N travels to town by car. O and P retire to bed, and Q dies.

There is nothing unique or especially disturbing in this set of activities, except for perhaps the juxtaposition of the two acts of violence interspersed with the two very ordinary acts of taking mustard and driving to town, and then having a couple go to bed while another individual dies.

Third Quatrain: All Players Interconnected

R lies to S, but happens to be heard
By T, who tells U not to fire V
For having to give W the word
That X is now deceiving Y with Z,

Unlike many of the disparate characters in the first and second quatrains, in the third quatrain, all the players are interconnected: R prevaricates and deceives S, and T overhears the lie; then T admonishes U against sacking V, who told W about X's deception of Y and Z.

The interconnection of activities attempts to show that as in real life many characters act and respond to other characters, while many other acts may be performed in relative isolation.

Couplet: The Round Completed

Who happens, just now to remember A
Peeling an apple somewhere far away.

The narrative comes full circle, being a primer of the daily round, in that Z is acquainted with and remembers A, who is peeling the apple, though he is peeling the fruit somewhere far away.

Clever but Trivial

On the one hand, Nemerov's piece is quite trivial although rather clever, while on the other hand, by placing the movement in the highly formalized Elizabethan sonnet, the poet bestows on the piece an air of sophistication that the recitation of the alphabet would not ordinarily deserve.

But by making a fundamentally universal comment on the widespread and varied activities of humanity, the piece is saved from being a mere trifling.

I suggest that one correction should be made on this piece: The line, "I do not understand, should be changed to "I does not understand." "I" refers to the letter, not the first person singular speaker. Thus third person is required.

Notice third personal singular is correctly employed with the other letters: A "peels" an apple, B "kneels" to God, etc.

Kay Ryan's "Home to Roost"

Former U.S. poet laureate (2008-2010), Kay Ryan writes clever, little ditties that offer a distinctive reading experience, fun yet they often make a useful observation about human behavior.

Introduction and Text of "Home to Roost"

The old aphorism, “chickens coming home to roost,” is often employed by those who wish to castigate the behavior of others, for example after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Malcolm X remarked that the event was merely an example of "chickens coming home to roost."

Malcolm X believed that Kennedy had failed to stop racial violence, and therefore he reaped the blighted harvest of that failure; chickens coming home to roost is an alternative metaphor for "you reap what you sow."

Malcolm X on "Chickens Coming Home to Roost"

Thus, employing the expression "chickens coming home to roost" reflects the universal law of cause and effect, sowing and reaping, and karma.

Home to Roost

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

Reading of Kay Ryan's "Home to Roost"

Commentary on Kay Ryan's “Home to Roost”

Kay Ryan's clever, little ditty offers a distinctive reading experience, after the poet has reformed the cliché.

Even Though Chickens Can't Fly

Ryan's speaker in "Home to Roost" has a clever take on that old saw. The opening image has the chickens overhead "circling and / blotting out the / day." Chickens, of course, are not capable of such a flight.

Their wings allow them only a modicum of flying ability. In fact, their wings do little more than help them jump from one place to another. But the fantasy flight of these chickens works marvelously here.

They are, of course, metaphorical chickens that represent all of the mistakes and missteps of the speaker. On this day when "[t]he sun is bright / but the / chicken are in / the way," she is forced to realize that her life's errors are clouding her mental skies.

And they are so thick that "the sky is dark / with chickens"; thus, she is finding thinking about anything pleasant very difficult because of the intrusion of the thoughts of all of her past errors.

Mental Sky Dense with Past Mistakes

The speaker's mind is the metaphorical sky which is dense with those chickens on their way to her mental roost. The thoughts keep twisting and moving in her mind, as those birds would "turn and / then they turn / again."

The speaker then remarks that they are those very mistakes that she committed in the past; she made each mistake one at a time. She admits to making numerous errors but asserts that they all were small yet varied.

After having experienced a number of years since having made all kinds of mistakes, she reports that, "Now they have / come home / to roost." And now they are all the same, and they are arriving with the "same speed."

Although they were small errors when she first committed them, they have matured and returned to her all grown up and all at once. They are now approaching so thickly that they continue to blot out her mental sky. The speaker cannot see any present joy because of all of those dark chickens arriving.

Once they hit the roost, she will then have another stage of her life to contend with, no doubt hoping she can avoid sending forth any more baby chicks that will indubitably have to return again at some time in the future.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles