I’ve been reading a little collection of poems about birds called On the Wings of Song and edited by J.D. McClatchy. The range of poems is admirable, and the number of well-known poets who have written about birds practically limitless. Poets, it appears, do write about birds!
McClatchy’s poetry collection is divided into sections: the Backyard, the Barnyard, the Realm of Air, Field and Forest, At Water’s Edge, Birds of Prey, Flightless Birds, the Nightingale, the Peacock, the Owl, the Hawk, the Swan, Nests and Cages, Bird-Song, Flights of Fancy, and Legendary and Emblematic Birds. Each reveals a specific aspect of avian life.
Many poems from the collection caught my attention, lingered in my memory, and spoke to my heart. Some made me laugh! (Ah, turkeys and vultures, ostriches and flamingoes!) Here are three poems, in reverse chronological order, that made me meditate on deeper meaning:
“The Mockingbird” by Randall Jarrell (1914-65)
Look one way and the sun is going down,
look the other, and the moon is rising.
The sparrow’s shadow’s longer than the lawn.
The bats squeak: “Night is here”; the birds cheep: “Day is gone.”
On the willow’s highest branch, monopolizing
day and night, cheeping, squeaking, soaring,
the mockingbird is imitating life.
All day the mockingbird has owned the yard.
As light first woke the world, the sparrows trooped
onto the seedy lawn: the mockingbird
chased them off shrieking. Hour by hour, fighting hard
to make the world his own, he swooped
on thrushes, thrashers, jays, and chickadees–
at noon he drove away a big black cat.
Now, in the moonlight, he sits here and sings.
A thrush is singing, then a thrasher, then a jay–
then, all at once, a cat begins meowing.
A mockingbird can sound like anything.
He imitates the world he drove away
so well for a minute, in the moonlight,
which one’s the mockingbird? which one’s the world?
“The Eagle” by Alfred Tennyson (19th c.)
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.
“The Cranes” by Po Chu-i (772-846) and translated by Arthur Waley
The western wind has blown but a few days;
yes, the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
in the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
through sparse bamboo trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
the garden-boy is leading the cranes home.
For different reasons, I loved Galway Kinnell’s “The Gray Heron,” Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Flamingoes: Jardin des Plantes, Paris,” David Wagoner’s “Peacock Display,” Ted Hughes’ “Hawk Roosting” … and on and on. These poems make me see the birds vividly in my mind’s eye and connect the secret life of birds to the experiences of human hearts.
You can pick up a copy of On Wings of Song at Amazon, but if you can’t do it right away, I encourage you to visit Cool Bird Poems: An E-Anthology of Bird Poetry. There’s quite a selection of fine poems about birds there, too. Enjoy!