When researching specific birds that professional bird photographer Heather Wolf photographed in Brooklyn Bridge Park for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s Brooklyn Bird Watch, we would sometimes locate a poem by a well known poet who had mentioned that particular bird species in a poem, or perhaps even written it a complete poem about a specific bird.
There are of course many familiar poems by famous poets throughout literary history about birds like Keat’s “Ode To a Nightingale”, Shelley’s “The Skylark”, or Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, but there is also an abundant amount of lesser known poems with images about our avian friends caught on camera making their migratory stops in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
We could start with one of Brooklyn’s own famous natives, Walt Whitman, the poet and former editor of The Brooklyn Eagle. His poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is about growing up and remembering the inspirational songs of the Mockingbird he listened to as a child.
Rocking out of the cradle endlessly
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me
One presumes the reference to the Mockingbird’s song as a “musical shuttle” refers to the bird’s unique ability to create an uninterrupted song “shuttling” from one repeated imitation to another.
An interesting fact about another well-known, popular American poet, Emily Dickinson, had a lot of bird references, comparatively speaking, throughout her volumes of minimalist, eclectic poetry.
According to the poet Stanley Plumly, Dickinson mentions birds in 220 of her 1,800 poems. “Mostly she mentions them as contributions to the texture of the poem, as an analogue, a simile, a comparison, a detail, or a member of a list. Apart from her 150 uses of the word “bird”, she names the robin 38 times, the boblink 12, the sparrow 9, the jay 7, the hummingbirds 5, and so forth on down through the crow and the oriole 4, the bluebird , the phoebe, and the wren 3, the blackbird 2, while there is just one mention of the nightingale.”
One of her most critically acclaimed and popular poems about birds doesn’t even mention the bird by name, although everyone, including literary critics, seem to presume it to be her most mentioned bird, the Robin.
A Bird Came Down the Walk
A Bird, came down the Walk— He didn’t know I saw – He bit an Angle Worm in halves And ate the fellow, raw,
And then, he drank a Dew From a convenient Grass – And then hopped sideways to the Wall To let a Beetle pass –
He glanced with rapid eyes, That hurried all abroad – They looked like frightened beads, I thought, He stirred his Velvet Head. –
Like one in danger, Cautious, I offered him a Crumb, And he unrolled his feathers, And rowed him softer Home—
Than Oars divide the Ocean, Too silver for a seam, Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon, Leap, splashless as they swim.
America’s first internationally known African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) wrote this poem about the Sparrow.
A little bird, with plumage brown, Beside my window flutters down, A moment chirps its little strain, Ten taps upon my window-pane, And chirps again, and hops along, To call my notice to its song; But I work on, nor heed its lay, Till, in neglect, it flies away.
So birds of peace and hope and love Come fluttering earthward from above, To settle on life’s window–sills, And ease our load of earthly ills; But we, in traffic’s rush and din Too deeply engaged to let them in, With deadened heart and sense plod on, Nor know our loss till they are gone.
And some poets took to the lighter side, as did Lawrence Hall as recently as 2018, in a poem about the Northern Cardinal. The poet projects some exaggerated, human characteristics onto the bird that don’t seem totally unreasonable, considering how admired the bird is for, primarily, it’s beautiful color.
Some Observations on the Habits of the American Cardinal
The Cardinal knows that he is a pretty bird Splendidly attired in feathers bright and gay Hey publishes loudly; hey want be heard Among the squawks of mockingbird and jay
He gobbles and scatters husks, rusks, and seeds In self-indulgent abandonment He ignores all others in his wants and needs They’re secular birds; they can take a hint
The Cardinal certainly loves to be seen At the public feeder in all his pride Attentive to fashions, and always keen For the Best Birds to be posed at his side
But then one day
A few remnant feathers, a ripped cardinal’s hat— He seems to have forgotten the watchful cat.
Recently we posted a striking photo by Heather Wolf, a close up of the Double Breasted Cormorant. We found several interesting poems about this unique bird that dives and skillfully catches fish while under water. In what seems like a tradeoff, the bird with such
Survival skills would have feathers that do not, like ducks, tread water, and it the cormorant hath to stand vulnerable in the sun with its wings spread until they dry out.
One poet is fascinated that the cormorant dove into the polluted Hudson River and actually caught something to eat. So the poem forgets on being sort of a commentary on the polluted river and the survival instinct of a diving cormorant. The poet seems shocked that something could actually live in the water and please that the bird found some food.
A pair of brown grey cormorants sit bobbing on perky swells Then ploink they disappear to sample The Hudson’s murky hell.
Down in Dante’s numbered around They swim blinded by pollution In the shadow of towering wills To technological evolution.
I could not imagine there being life In a river so deathly still Til up they popped with puffed up throats To swallow a tasty kill.
And perhaps a slightly more difficult poem to understand, nevertheless, Amy Clampitt, a well-known American poet who was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Poets, also wrote about the cormorant.
The Cormorant In Its Element
That bony potbellied arrow, wing pumping along implacably, with a ramrod’s rigid adherence, airborne, to the horizontal, discloses talents one would have never guessed at. plummeting
waterward, big black feet splayed for a landing gear, slim head turning and turning, vermilion striped, this way and that, with a lightning glance over the shoulder, the cormorant astounding-
ly, in one sleek involuted arabesque, a vertical turn on a dime, goes into that inimitable vanishing and emerging from under the briny
deep act which unlike the works of Homo Houdini, is performed for reasons that nothing at all to do with ego, guilt, ambition or even money.
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