Friday, 18 July 2008

Birds in poetry

In the latest issue of the American Birding Association's journal Birding, there's a long (and unfortunately rather dry) article about birds in American poetry, starting with Anne Bradstreet in 1659 and going right through until the present day.

It ends with a list of 11 recommended bird poems, namely:
Who Called That Pied-Billed Grebe A Podilymbus Podiceps Podiceps? - Ogden Nash
The Peace Of Wild Things - Wendell Berry (it features Wood Ducks)
Buteo Regalis - N Scott Momaday (features Ferruginous Hawks)
Shorebird Watching - Amy Clampitt (Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, Golden Plover and Turnstone)
On A 3.5oz Lesser Yellowlegs, Departed Boston August 28, Shot Martinique September 3 - Eamon Grennan
Barn Owl - Ted Kooser
To The Saguaro Cactus Tree In The Desert Rain - James Wright (Elf Owl)
Twilight: After Haying - Jane Kenyon (Whip-poor-will)
The Author Of American Ornithology Sketches A Bird - David Wagoner (Ivory-Billed Woodpecker)
The Need Of Being Versed In Country Things - Robert Frost (Eastern Phoebe)
Shrike Tree - Lucia Perillo (Loggerhead Shrike and Northern Shrike)

That list told me two things. Firstly, that I know far too little American poetry to be able to make an informed judgement on whether that really is a representative selection. Second, that as I suspected, American birders tend to have better names for their species.

But it also set me thinking of a top ten British (and Irish) bird poems. I've already got a few, and I'll post my selection in the near future, but all suggestions are welcome...


Kirk Wisebeard said...

Top ten british bird poems... must include at least one Spike Milligan... I suggest the following..

The little Insignificant Twit bird
Is very seldom seen or heard..
There's never been a pair I fear;
So how the devil did he get here?

Hedgie said...

An exceptional "bird poet" is the Canadian Don McKay; his 1983 volume Birding, or desire contained many poems involving birds and birds figure in a number of his other poems, as well. Camber: Selected Poems (McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Ontaio, 2004) contains an excellent selection from his work; Strike/Slip (McClelland & Stewart, 2006), his most recent book, contains several, as well, and won a major Canadian poetry prize.

Hedgie said...

Two quick notes:

McKay's Strike/Slip[ won two major prizes, both the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Dorothy Livesay Prize.

Here is a mini-anthology of Canadian poems with birds in them from my "Jackdaw's Nest" website.

Alison said...

I think the list must include John Clare. Who else would know the colour inside a cuckoo's beak? The end of this poem has many echoes, into Clare's life and beyond.

The Cuckoo
John Clare

The cuckoo, like a hawk in flight,
With narrow pointed wings
Whews o'er our heads—soon out of sight
And as she flies she sings:
And darting down the hedgerow side
She scares the little bird
Who leaves the nest it cannot hide
While plaintive notes are heard.

I've watched it on an old oak tree
Sing half an hour away
Until its quick eye noticed me
And then it whewed away.
Its mouth when open shone as red
As hips upon the brier,
Like stock doves seemed its winged head
But striving to get higher

It heard me rustle and above leaves
Soon did its flight pursue,
Still waking summer's melodies
And singing as it flew.
So quick it flies from wood to wood
'Tis miles off 'ere you think it gone;
I've thought when I have listening stood
Full twenty sang—when only one.

When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
'Cuck cuck' it cries and mocking boys
Crie 'Cuck' and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more.

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, John Clare would have to be in my top ten (in fact, he could easily make up the entire top ten). That's a wonderful poem, isn't it?

Guy Procter said...

Glad to be able to contribute to this one of my favourite Larkin poems, which sounds especially good with him reading it...

On longer evenings,
Light, shill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon -
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.

Guy Procter said...

Chill, not shill!

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks, Guy. The sort of poem that refutes all the usual criticisms of Larkin. I remember reading that one around the time I was doing A Levels, and liking it then. Nice to be reminded.