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
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)
spirit colossal, by e. e. cummings
(&daunted by always
nothing) you darling
jovial ego (&
clown of an angel.
(but chiefly at home in
of winter his silence).
give me a trillionth
part of inquisitive
your livingest courage.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?