Sunday, September 19, 2010
‘As cold and as hard and as temporary as flight’: Birds in Contemporary Poetry
Below the text of a talk I gave the other day at a most enjoyable conference in Belfast.
Praising Samuel Johnson’s poetry in 1930, T.S. Eliot commended it to those who ‘want poetry and not something else, some stay for their own vanity’. I begin with this reminder, as I sense that anyone who reads poetry and poetry criticism today will be familiar with the feeling that much of the time we are offered something else instead, which may overlap with the thing itself but nevertheless falls crucially short. Most contemporary poetry criticism, let me baldly assert, is in fact something else by proxy, whether gender studies, sociology, postcolonial theory or other. But in the same way that you sweat but I perspire, there is the risk of applying this discursive down-grading only to other people’s impure obsessions, we by contrast being above all suspicion; and as someone with an obsession of his own about birds, I am aware of the jealousy that can attach to this passion, to the point where the enthusiast actively resents its dilution at the cost of any other interest whatever. Where the poetry of birds is concerned, do the human and the avian form a Yin and Yang, or two birds’ eggs of a Venn diagram, one of them a potential cuckoo waiting to push the other out of the nest? It can go either way. The last line of Yeats’s ‘Cuchulain Comforted’ (‘They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds’) seems to me a beautiful example of bird trumping human, whereas the second line of Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ (‘Bird thou never wert’) shows the victory of the human hubristic sublime, as fatal to birds as a jet engine. As D. H. Lawrence commented, ‘Who would wish that the skylark were not a bird, but a spirit?’ Perhaps a dollop of poo in his eye might help put him right. But this pro-bird corrective spirit can also be taken too far. As James Fisher wrote of Roger Tory Peterson, his co-author on the 1955 classic Wild America, ‘Roger talks most of the time about birds. When the subject switches, a faraway look comes into his eye. He just waits for a lull and steps in where he left off.’ Accompanying a party of eminent statesmen and others on a bird-watching trip to a UK estuary, Peterson became increasingly agitated as Lord Alanbrooke, chief of the General Staff during the Second World War, held forth on his relations with Winston Churchill, and butted in with the words ‘I guess oystercatchers will eat most any kind of mollusc.’
Let these words serve as my monomaniac alibi, therefore, if the following remarks fall short of the purely literary and I deviate into the best places to watch lapwings on the Humber estuary or some other such merely avian fixation. The serious opening point I am labouring to make here, however, is this: how much of the bird poem belongs to us, how much to the birds? How inevitable are our appropriations and anthropomorphizations of the birds, how right or wrong? Is there an epistemology of ornithopoetics (can I claim that term?), and what might it look like? There has been a rich harvest of nature writing in recent years, and a list of the poets who have written well on birds would include Michael Longley, Peter Reading, Robert Adamson, Paul Muldoon, Kathleen Jamie, Alice Oswald, Helen Macdonald and Jen Hadfield, but even within this group there are many contrasting approaches to the central question at stake: how to represent the inhuman, and how do justice to it across an insuperable species divide. One blunt answer would be to admit we cannot, and that, poetic illusion aside, the world of the bird is closed to us, their worlds of immense delight ‘closed by our senses five’, as Blake suggested. ‘The more we know, the further away they are’, as John Berger has claimed of animals. How do we act on this discovery? Among the best-known instances in modern thought of speech encountering the unknowable are the last words of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, ‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.’ As we know, this turned out not to be quite his last word after all, and his 1929 comments on a very different thinker, Heidegger, and the nature of questions to which ‘there is [...] no answer whatsoever’, get close to the artistic predicament I am describing here:
But the inclination, the running up against something, indicates something. St. Augustine knew that already when he said: What, you swine, you want not to talk nonsense! Go ahead and talk nonsense, it does not matter!’
As a broad principle of individuation among my avian poets, therefore, I would like to propose the degree to which they do or not accept this as a basis for their work, or if not exactly accept, then dramatise or trope this state of affairs. The spectrum, I would like to suggest, runs from the poet as naturalist at one end to the would-be shaman at the other. Where writers choose to situate themselves on this scale depends on a volatile compound of aesthetic and ethical choices. To take an arch-naturalist first, bird-watching has played an increasing role in the work of Peter Reading, most notably in his book-length sequence on ecological catastrophe, -273.15. With his misanthropic jeremiads, Reading could never be accused of cleaving unduly to an anthropocentric worldview, and yet his work could hardly be further from the creaturely shamanism of Ted Hughes (who appears to be among Reading’s least favourite poets). His birds are, to a very high degree, humanly mediated, lovingly stalked, identified from field guides, and crossed off the poet’s twitcher list. Taking pains to avoid human meddling with his subjects, he produces poems that, in their guilt-ridden way, choose human abjection over avian release except in the briefest of vignettes, often in a style of pseudo-Chinoiserie or Japanoiserie, its birds as exquisite as porcelain tea-cups or silk kimonos.
A description of short-tailed shearwaters from his 2002 collection Faunal is typical in this regard: the birds return from their ‘pelagic foraging’ to ‘regurgitate their piscine /mulch in the gapes of fledglings’, which sounds to me as though Sir Thomas Browne has tagged along on the holiday too, while a final carpe diem (‘Well, we won’t experience that again in a hurry’) could hardly do more to separate the event from ordinary experience if it handed us the poem on surgical tongs. Although the shearwaters are elusive and distinctive birds, Reading’s epiphany in their presence lends itself uncannily well to recycling for other prize specimens, such as the Steller’s jays, pygmy nuthatches and white-headed woodpeckers of -273.15, in lines that again eschew overmuch description and save their implied emotion for another moment of crepuscular leave-taking, the ‘descent into shadow /of the deep valley ahead – /its dark vermicular flume’. These are deeply humane poems by a naturalist-poet ashamed of the blot he casts on the landscape, but also poems that wilfully condemn themselves to a cycle of guilt and self-cancellation, whether narrative or philosophical. His birds may thus be sadly fitting emblems of the dead end Reading’s work appears to have reached of late. But is he ‘bleedin’ demised’, ‘bereft of life’, or merely, like the Norwegian blue parrot, pining for the fjords? Poets too can become extinct, and it would make a grim kind of sense if eco-apocalypse were the subject that finally tipped Peter Reading over the edge.
At the other end of the scale would be a poet who overwrites the raw data of the natural world with her own human concerns, with minimal pretence of attention to its lived detail first. A representative example here is the blithely Shelleyan-Whitmanesque Mary Oliver, whose ‘Wild Geese’ begins with portentous emoting (‘Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine’) before yanking some passing geese from the sky as character witnesses:
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Many of the great bird moments in modern poetry, from the bird’s ‘sleepy cries’ among the ‘deepening shades’ at the end of Yeats’s ‘The Tower’ to the casual flocks of pigeons that end Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’, occur in cameos with no apparent context or causal relationship to what has gone before, but the yoking together by force here of the human’s ‘place /in the family of things’ and the passing geese belongs in a different category again. To Randy Malamud, in his Poetic Animals and Animal Souls, Oliver appropriates the natural world the better to vindicate an anthropocentric worldview, articulating an ‘I that speaks for people to people’, and whose unexamined privileges logically conclude in ‘narcissism and speciesist isolationism’. ‘Wild Geese’ seems to me a crassly bad poem, and but one to whose badness the high-handed suborning of the natural world contributes in no small part.
I have already, it would seem, begun to draw lines of equivalence from ethical to aesthetic positions – I disapprove of the way you appropriate this bird, therefore this poem is bad – and wonder if by the same logic Yeats’s tone-deafness now disqualifies his remarks on music or Christopher Reid’s non-Eastern Europeanness devalues Katerina Brac. Surely not. But how is this different? Bird poets differ among themselves in their degrees of engagement with the politics of the environment, not to mention their sense of their own role and agency therein. Peter Reading’s Tory anarchism notes environmental despoliation and species loss, adds its Dad’s Army diagnosis that ‘We’re doomed!’, and leaves it at that. A poet such as John Kinsella by contrast evidently considers his bird poems as of a piece with the post-avant vegan pacifist anarachist activism he professes elsewhere. Here I might draw a comparison, unusual you might think, with war poetry. There is in much contemporary war poetry, bad war poetry, the temptation to reverse-engineer the poem from a pre-existing position – often an entirely admirable position, such as the belief that poetry is on the side of humane values and can help, in a demonstrable way, to stop wars. Where nature writing is concerned, there is a long tradition of eco-kitsch, of which the dolphin- and elephant-hymning ditties of Heathcote Williams are notable examples. But, flighty creatures that they are, birds are poor emblems of static positions, and some of the best bird poetry being written today may appear to bypass great themes of the day such as pollution and habitat and species loss. But, I would argue, there is little to be said on these things that is not already implicit in the sheer fragile mysteriousness of seeing and looking at the bird, the fact of its being there at all. As J.A. Baker writes at the beginning of one of the most remarkable of bird books, The Peregrine, ‘The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.’ Hence perhaps the importance in the work of Michael Longley of the framing of the image and our awareness of its transience. We frequently find Longley waiting for a bird that has yet to arrive, watching it vanish, or when it is there, scrupulously keeping his distance: a rainbow provides ‘Cover for all of the birds that have disappeared’, ‘I would count the swans but it hurts my eyes’, while a departing wheatear mimics ‘my panic, my breathlessness’, to take three random examples.
This question of framing also extends to larger questions of the tradition in which the bird poem situates itself. Simon Armitage and Tim Dee’s anthology, The Poetry of Birds, is very much a statement of the English Romantic line, albeit with the emphasis on John Clare’s creaturely aesthetic, to which Lawrence, Hughes and more recently Alice Oswald are so indebted, rather than Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime. Oswald’s work in particular has been much touted in connection with the contemporary nature writing revival, and shows as keen an eye for a bird as did her mentor Ted Hughes. Though informed by a profound knowledge of the natural world, she is less concerned than Peter Reading to treat bird-watching as a shopping trip for exotic species: often she will neglect even to specify what the bird is, as in the beginning of ‘Birdsong for Two Voices’:
A spiral ascending the morning,
climbing by means of a song into the sun,
to be sung reciprocally by two birds at intervals
in the same tree but not quite in time.
A song that assembles the earth
out of nine notes and silence.
out of the unformed gloom before dawn
where every tree is a problem to be solved by birdsong.
For Heidegger, ‘Die Sprache spricht, nicht der Mensch’, it is language that speaks rather than man, and here it is song that Orphically ‘assembles the earth’. The same Heidegger would intone menacingly against the conversion of nature into use-value, seeing in a tree an object of possible exploitation, but if Oswald calls a tree a ‘problem to be solved’ the addition of the words ‘by birdsong’ transports us to a very different realm from that of instrumental reason and commercial logging. Species specificity enters the poem in the third stanza, with a reference to ‘Crex Crex Corcorovado’, ‘crex crex’ being that fetish species for bird poets of these islands, the corncrake. Anaphora is a frequent device in Oswald’s work (as it is in birdsong), underwriting the druid-like spells and incantations towards which her poems frequently build, like so many Devonian pss to the ‘Song of Amergin’. ‘Seabird’s Blessing’ invokes a more Christian register, though a reference to ‘God the featherer’ keeps the Christian God the right side of animism, while ‘Owl’ extrapolates from a bird’s far-off cry to a pantheistic vision of interconnectedness:
last night at the joint of dawn,
an owl’s call opened the darkness
miles away, more than a world beyond this room
and immediately, I was in the woods again,
poised, seeing my eyes seen,
hearing my listening heard
It is almost impossible to see as sharp-eyed a bird as an owl without it seeing you first, but Oswald’s supplementary twist of ‘hearing [her] listening heard’ comprehensively inverts the relationship of observer and observed, placing the elusive bird at the centre of things, even from the speaker’s standpoint, indoors and miles away. The polarity of here and there, centre and periphery, is turned inside out like a glove, as the owl comes to fill the landscape. The syntax is difficult to follow here: the following lines connect directly to those quoted above, but is the subject still the ‘I’ that is back in the woods, or the titular owl, or both? The fact that a tree can be ‘improvised’ here suggests such inter-subjective and inter-species boundaries are at best fluid:
under a huge tree improvised by fear
dead brush falling then a star
straight through to God
founded and fixed the wood
then out, until it touched the town’s lights,
an owl’s elsewhere swelled and questioned
twice, like you might lean and strike
two matches in the wind
If Oswald extends the Romantic tradition, there are other traditions too with their own distinctive modes of access to the natural world. Consider an experimental poet such as Helen Macdonald. Do birds sing in iambic pentameter? They certainly don’t sing in the diatonic scale, to judge from the greatest rendering of birdsong in modern music, Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, a fact that should embolden us in our approach to Macdonald’s work. She is a Cambridge poet with all the involutions and complexity that entails, but where the Cambridge poem stereotypically prefers to be, not mean, the objective correlative of her work, in the form of its birds, is always hugely if mysteriously there:
a pallor derived from deception at the window stood
bitten by river air, the roiling heart, a moment of love only
chief among these then and you are calling it in
inspiration like dry skin in its diminution silence
and the sky is as motionless as the heart
its hook to tie it from
Macdonald is a falconer and has written a fine prose book on the falcon, but as anyone who has flown a bird of prey knows, captive-bred birds allow us to get closer to them at the cost of a certain denaturing; an imprinted bird will consider its handler not just a parent but also a sexual partner. The hook in these lines from ‘Noar Hill’ represents both the ties of affection and the bird’s captivity on a leash, a double-bind indeed, and one the poet never claims to resolve. Falconer and falcon commune across the species divide, but subject to these denaturing convergences, the human equivalent being the shamanistic melancholy we find in a great, but yearningly elegiac poem such as Macdonald’s ‘letter to america’. Dialogue across species becomes the basis of self-identification: ‘I am a conversation across oceans’, the poet declares, experiencing ‘uncertainty or surprise //surviving precisely as a desire for redundancy’. The bird’s approach to its handler induces dizziness wrapped in a double negative: ‘as if /it weren’t in fact anything other than the imaginary /front sight of one index pressed to your brow /which held you to a name and its willing execution’. Drawing heavily on scientific terminology, the writing is painstakingly detailed (and if the Romantics’ exaltation of nature depended on the relegation of science, these poems are proof enough that a technical vocabulary has its magical aura too), but Macdonald stops short of claiming outright intimacy with its subject, falling back on reverent guesswork: the hawk ‘rous[es] one’s mind from safety and tameable illness /to beautiful comprehension in the form of a hunch’. A distinctly Cambridge aspect of Macdonald’s style is its sudden ninety-degree syntactic turns away from what we think is coming next, and which in context can be read as imitating the falcon’s feints, banks and plunges: ‘a static click breaking into small worlds /where death has music in a vice-like //I think not’. A book I mentioned earlier, J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, ends by rewarding its author’s quest with a moment of pure communion with a drowsy peregrine on a branch, its usual instincts of suspicion and flight suspended, but the last lines of ‘letter to america’ unite author and bird in an epiphany of joint scattering into the air, a conclusion no less powerful for seeming to leave us with nothing but ‘the pure suburban heavens’. Macdonald’s is difficult but powerfully rewarding poetry. I no more understand it, on one level, than I ‘understand’ a falcon, but it would be a radically impoverished vision of poetry that preferred the nature reserve in which most of us live, most of the time, whether as poetry readers or merely as citizens of the earth, to the exhilarating wildness of her closing lines. Here is not merely a bird poem, but poetry as a bird, sleek, effortless, difficult, cruel, unknowable and lovely:
& you were scraping the ice from the leading edge a.m.
printing an image of the mansions of the dead a.m.
looking for a small world in the uninhabitable air
trying to extinguish some deeper desire for fire
with something as cold and as hard and as temporary as flight
& what you were hoping is that the air would recolonise you
recgonise you and welcome you into the sunlight
and all would be forgiven. ink in the thick air would curl
into glyphs of desire & the lightly starred heel
would dip into the sea at dawn as it spills
into a blaze of mute objects
in the pure suburban heavens