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Birds and Poetry

When I read the following words in Leonard Nathan’s illuminating Diary of a Left-handed Birdwatcher, I was delighted:

Valmiki is the first, the father, of all poets. He is also the first known birdwatcher, and it is his birdwatching that has occasioned his invention: from shoka (grief) comes shloka (poetry).

So there you have it. The first poet was also the first birder, and the two are inextricably linked. Birds have been celebrated in poetry ever since, from the haiku masters of seventeenth century Japan to the English Romantics and their famous fondness for nightingales. And the relationship continues.

Not long ago, I agreed to review contemporary poet Ruth Schwartz’s Miraculum, a book of poetry not marketed as nature writing and which I expected to have no connection to birds. I began reading, and there they were: mockingbirds, phoebes, and sparrows, beautifully represented and relevant to a collection of poems mostly about sex and death, not birdwatching.

I was again thrilled when I browsed through the poems of Pittsburgh based poet Rick St. John in his collection The Pure Inconstancy of Grace, and discovered a poem dedicated to the first bird I ever pointed out to my fiancée, and the ABA’s Bird of the Year. This man is a brilliant poet, but he is not a birder. And yet, he wrote and published a wonderful piece entitled “Nighthawks.”

So even in the moments when I have made a small effort to read contemporary poetry, not expecting birds, I have found birds. I even enjoy that more in the way, when non-birder poets find the beauty and intrigue of birds moving enough to include in their work. It confirms a conviction I believe many of us share: that birds are an essential part of our world, and that understanding them on at least some level is an essential part of being human.

But how aware is the birding community of this deep connection between birds and poetry? Much is made of the birding world’s contributions to science, and rightly so, but I have rarely seen our poetic inclination celebrated in a similar way. On a national level, poetry struggles to remain relevant more than any other literary art, all of which are losing influence in our culture.

Yet birders read and write insatiably. To feel like I’m up to date with the latest buzz in the birdworld, I need to read four or five magazines and five to ten blogs. I need to check my state listserv and peruse various groups on Facebook. Then add the newsletters from the local birdclubs I belong to, the state ornithological journal, and any number of electronic correspondences with birdfriends.

I have never seen a single one of these venues publish poetry about birds, and yet in each one I have found poetry about birds. For example, I keep a Word document of Found Poetry with messages from the Pennsylvania Birds listserv. With permission from the authors, let me share a few:

The Alcid

By David Wilbur

After some 40 plus years of birding

you would think I would have seen it all,

at least on the East coast.

Still, yesterday, I was pulling into the parking lot

at Indian River Inlet in Delaware (below Rehoboth Beach)

when I had a Razorbill get up off the water

and fly out towards sea.

First time I’ve ever seen an alcid

while sitting in the comfort of my car.

Even in Newfoundland, Maine and northern Europe,

I had to get out and walk a little
or, in the Atlantic, off New Jersey and Delaware,

get on a boat.

You never know what you’ll see,

until you look, I guess.

 =====

Waterthrush Melody

By Bill Franz

Enjoyed seeing a Common Loon

on the small lake at Colonel Denning State Park

and two Louisiana Waterthrushes

on the fast-moving stream

that feeds into the lake.

Can there be a more beautiful melody

than from a waterthrush

after a little-too-long winter?

The only changes I made to these pieces were to add line breaks and give them denotative titles. They are field observations, of course, but to me, they also exemplify the poetic disposition many of us share.

In science, a lyric inclination is generally regarded with disdain. There’s not room for poetic flourish in an ornithological research paper, although the ornithologist Alexander Skutch had this to say:

The science of ornithology has grown so rapidly because the poetry of birds has led so many people to study them. Wholly to divorce the science from the poetry would injure the science.

The sentiment rings true to me, but as birders, each of us is afforded a luxurious freedom: we are not bound to the same standards as professional ornithologists. When we write about birds, we can and often do indulge our love of poetry. Despite poetry’s decline in stature throughout our culture, it is thriving in birding culture. We can find poetry almost anywhere we look, though we may not always recognize it.

One reason we may not always notice or seek out poetry in birdwriting is because of the difficulty in defining what poetry even is. I think of it as a yearning, when the words seek an elusive knowledge. I see that in both of the poems above. Formatting and other conventions are ultimately superficial. I read those posts now and see poetry because they are searching for something.

So where have you found poetry in the birdworld? Have you seen it in a trip report, Facebook status update, or blog post? Elsewhere?

Let’s celebrate our love of poetry and birds, wherever we find it.

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Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and a candidate for the Ph.D. in English Literature at West Virginia University with a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early Neotropical ornithologists. He likes his birding milestones to be palindromes, and is currently at 1001 birds.
  • Rick Wright

    My favorite bit of ornithopoésie trouvée:

    Should a sanderling be
    Observed at sea
    And should it light upon the water
    Then it is a phalarope.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      We need a field guide written entirely in verse. Where’s that from, Rick?

  • Rick Wright

    That’s Peterson. I’ve argued elsewhere (link on request) that we actually do have a field guide in verse: Pete Dunne’s Essential.

  • Rick Wright

    From amazon:

    This phrase occurs frequently

    In each of these books:

    Penguin chicks

    Learn

    More.

  • Rick Wright

    And Bent on the pileated woodpecker:

    And now upon this splendid creature

    A dull piece of pedantry remains

    Hopelessly fixed.

  • George Armistead

    Great post. I think what a lot us like about birding is that it is a wonderful mix of art and science. Even identification which at first might seem about as cut and dry a process as there is, is subject to interpretation and appreciation.

    Poetry so often seems about how fleeting beauty is (at least that’s what I find myself writing about), and birds are are startlingly beautiful at one moment and then tragically absent the next. They are perfect symbols for poets.

  • Mary DeLia

    Are science and poetry really that far apart? All of the great poets were/are keen observers of the natural world, and seekers of truth. Science language and poetic language are not all that different. Poetry is not always emotional fiction. Good poetry is truth that is expressed using a variety of literary devices; figures of speech play heavily. But is that so different from science? Is gravity really a field? Are we made up of cells? These are obvious now, but at some point these were metaphors that scientists used to help express a truth, just as Emily Dickenson used the “thing with feathers” to express a truth about human existence. Scientists try to be literal as often as possible, but when they have to express very complicated concepts, only a metaphor can do the job: black hole.

    This takes me back to Ted Floyd’s post about Magniminity. I never got around to commenting on that. But you have open the door back up for this point to be made. He asked if there was “something more”. Yes, there is. What’s missing is a connection to the humanities in the birding world.

    Last January, while teaching a poetics lesson to my daughter, Robert Burns’ reference to a “green-crested lapwing” in Afton Waters made me wonder if this was the same lapwing species that had been visiting my area. While researching this I discovered an impressive quantity of literary references to lapwings dating back to Virgil. I was so fascinated by this that I wrote a blog post detailing some of my better finds (I do not have a very active blog).
    A realization came over me while working on this, an epiphany, you might say. Some cultures seem to have a deep connection to certain birds. We lack that here in the US. What’s our national connection to a bird: the Thanksgiving Turkey?
    I think, to answer the higher question about what’s missing, it’s this connection to birds in a human way – art, music, poetry. “Non-birders” are whooping our butts in this respect.
    To be inspired is one of the reasons I bird. I also like to see my daughter inspired. She’s a gifted musician and composer. She’s also had some poetry published. Much of her work is about birds. I like this line from her song Field Sparrow: “Your wings are brown, but they are painted with love.”

    Observation + truth = Science and poetry.

    • Rick Wright

      Mary, we’re fortunate that Birding remains one of the very few publications willing to treat birding from a “humanistic” point of view.

      • Mary DeLia

        I’ve only received one edition of Birding so far, but enjoyed it very much. I look forward to future editions and to seeing more of this human side of birding!

  • Michael Fitts

    How fortunate am I

    To have eyes and ears

    Able to see the color red

    And hear a sweet. sweet song

    Yet these riches are not all mine

    We are all kings and queens

    With this commoner in our midst

    The cardinal serenades us

    Willingly sharing his beauty

    Unaware of the fleeting love affair

    Known only to us

    Beneficiaries of his treasure

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