Poetry Is For The Birds


When I announced that I was going to create a post about birds and poetry I got skeptical and disbelieving looks from family and friends.  “Now you’ve gone too far”, and “what do you know about poetry?” were the unspoken but sensed reactions.  And they may be right, but the beauty of blogging is like leaping off the cliff and hoping you learn to fly before you hit bottom.  If it speaks to you, share it with the world.

Why have birds inspired poets throughout history?  I believe it is in part due to flight.  Man envies the birds.  Their flight signifies freedom, independence, adventure, and travel; they’re not confined to the artificial boundaries and borders of man, but migrate across the oceans.  It is also due to their unique feathered beauty and coloration.  Some are small and vulnerable whereas others display strength, and even evoke fear.  Their song clearly has its appeal as discussed in an earlier post.

I have gathered together a short anthology of nine bird poems that have appealed to me.  My criteria for selecting them was merely my preference and their length–I like the short ones best.  I’ll admit I have a bias to the poetry of John Clare, the 19th century English poet and will start with one of his.  A friend of mine, Eric Robinson, has spent much of his life compiling and editing the manuscripts of Clare and introduced me to his work.  Clare is known as the “peasant poet” and celebrated the agrarian life and natural world, including birds in his poetry.

Hedge Sparrow, by John Clare

The tame hedge-sparrow in its russet dress

Is half a robin for its gentle ways

And the bird-loving dame can do no less

Then throw it out a crumble on cold days

In early March it into gardens strays

And in the snug clipt box-tree green and round

It makes a nest of moss and hair and lays

When e’en the snow is lurking on the ground

Its eggs in number five of greenish blue

Bright beautiful and glossy shining shells

Much like the firetail’s but of brighter hue

Yet in her garden-home much danger dwells

Where skulking cat with mischief in its breast

Catches their young before they leave the nest

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

For a change of pace, sample from the work of e. e. cummings.  I remember him as the 20th century poet that never found the shift key on his typewriter, but could succinctly capture the essence of birds in a few lines.  Here are selections about a Kingbird and Chickadee:

for any ruffian of the sky, by e. e. cummings

for any ruffian of the sky

your kingbird doesn’t give a damn–

his royal warcry is I AM

and he’s the soul of chivalry.

In terror of whose furious beak

(as sweetly singing creatures know)

cringes the hugest heartless hawk

and veers the vast most crafty crow.

your kingbird doesn’t give a damn

for murderers of high estate

whose mongrel creed is Might Makes Right

–his royal warcry is I AM.

true to his mate his chicks his friends

he loves because he cannot fear

(you see it in the way he stands

and looks and leaps upon the air)

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

spirit colossal, by e. e. cummings

spirit colossal

(&daunted by always

nothing) you darling

diminutive person.

jovial ego (&

mischievous tenderly

phoebeing alter)

clown of an angel.

everywhere welcome

(but chiefly at home in

snowily nowheres

of winter his silence).

give me a trillionth

part of inquisitive

merrily humble

your livingest courage.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

The clever humor of Ogden Nash does not spare the birds.  This is one of my favorites.

The Grackle, by Ogden Nash

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow

His heart is black, his eye is yellow.

He bullies more attractive birds

With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words.

And should a human interfere,

Attacks the human in the rear.

I cannot help but deem the grackle

An ornithological debacle.

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the 19th century Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland, noted for his “Charge of the Light Brigade”.  His short poem about the eagle paints a vivid picture in few words:

The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Emily Dickinson, the 19th century New Englander takes the ubiquitous Migratorius turdus, and celebrates its certainty and overlooked beauty.

The Robin is the One, by Emily Dickinson

The Robin is the One

That interrupt the Morn

With hurried–few–express Reports

When March is scarcely on.

The Robin is the One

That overflow the Noon

With her cherubic quantity

An April but begun.

The Robin is the One

That speechless from her Nest

Submit the Home–and Certainty

And Sanctity, are best.

American Robin

American Robin

Can I return to Clare?

In Summer Showers a Skreeking Noise is Heard, by John Clare

In summer showers a skreeking noise is heard

Deep in the woods of some uncommon bird

It makes a loud and long and loud continued noise

And often stops the speed of men and boys

They think somebody mocks and goes along

And never thinks the nuthatch makes the song

Who always comes along the summer guest

The birdnest hunters never found the nest

The schoolboy hears the noise from day to day

And stoops among the thorns to find a way

And starts the jay bird from the bushes green

He looks and sees a nest he’s never seen

And takes the spotted eggs with many joys

And thinks he found the bird that made the noise

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

In the poem by Frost you can just picture the wide-eyed children’s close encounter with the owl.

Questioning Faces, by Robert Frost

The winter owl banked just in time to pass

And save herself from breaking window glass.

And her wings straining suddenly aspread

Caught color from the last of evening red

In a display of underdown and quill

To glassed-in children at the window sill.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

I bird frequently in Pelican Bay near Naples, Florida and see and photograph many Brown Pelicans in various plumages.  I heard this poem for the first time from a literary birding friend and often repeat it on the beach as the Pelicans fly by and dive for fish.  It is a wonderful bird as Merritt famously documents below.

The Pelican, by Dixon Lanier Merritt

A wonderful bird is the Pelican.

His beak can hold more than his belly can.

He can hold in his beak

Enough food for a week!

But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

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