The Poets Guide to the Birds by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser


by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser

Introduction (by Judith Kitchen)

Ted Kooser was moving all his books from his shed to his new library, and in the process he was dipping into them. "I've been coming up with a list of good bird poems," he e-mailed. "Can you think of any others?" Well, of course, there were the classics -- by Hopkins, and Frost, and Bishop -- but what else came to mind? I began to scan my own shelves. Just in our own collections (Ted's in Nebraska, mine in upstate New York), we unearthed over a thousand poems with birds as their focus (or at least their central image). It was clear from the sheer volume that birds have fuelled the poetic imagination, turning American poets into bird watchers of sorts, and so we conceived of this Poets Guide.

Bird watchers are taught to notice: how to distinguish one bird from another; male from female; how birds act and sound; where to look; what to look for. Poets do not come armed with such precise detail, and it could be said that they look at birds differently, that they "see" differently. Yet we believe that astute bird watchers will recognize their feathered friends in the pages of this collection, will see and hear familiar birds -- but possibly they will see and hear them in new ways. Here, birds sound like your grandparents' porch swing, or banjos, or typewriters, or Caruso. They argue and yelp and ricochet. And their activities -- well, they are described in so many inventive ways that readers will find themselves looking skyward to see if reality mirrors the poems.

When we began this project, we didn't know that I, too, would be moving -- three thousand miles -- to the Pacific Northwest, or that Ted would soon be caught up in his duties as the Poet Laureate of the United States. Still, I trucked the box containing the poems we'd found across those miles, and put it on the top shelf of the new closet in my new study. Three years later, the project was resurrected when Anhinga Press (what could be more fitting?) expressed interest in the concept. We'd already made some clear initial selections, and I began the process of further winnowing, shaping for variety of style, and tone, and stance, and, well... bird.

In the end, the field was narrowed to contemporary American poets, using poems written mostly over the past thirty years -- a total of 151 selections by 137 poets. From our decidedly unscientific sample, it would appear that statistically the most popular (or infamous) American bird is the crow, followed closely by the owl, then hawk, heron, sparrow, and woodpecker. This anthology flits from bird to bird, beginning with Betty Adcock's woman who saves birds and ending with Paul Zimmer's prophetic grouse and Lisa Zimmerman's less-than-graceful geese. Along the way, we encounter the "small shapes" Sam Green knows so well and the impressive wingspan of Robert Wrigley's eagle. I was pleased to be able to include a strong central sequence of ten short pieces by Ted Kooser himself, product of his morning walks while he was recovering from cancer.

The poets here often admit to how little they know, and then they realize how much they have learned by observing. Some stare unflinchingly at the birds, record simple behavior, take note of context and color and mood. For others, the birds are peripheral, touching down tangentially, then flying off, leaving insight in their wake. Some of these poets focus on specifics: this bird, this place, this time. They watch for habit and habitat, as well as deviation from the norm. Others veer toward the general: how birds figure in our lives, how they spark questions, call up earlier times or places, offer up meanings. Many address the activities of bird watchers directly.

Over the ages birds and poetry have formed a special bond. Everyone has heard of an "exaltation of larks," but it seems that other collective nouns for birds are highly metaphorical. Gary Short alludes to this in his poem about magpies; to complicate matters, some poets have gone into further flights of fancy, fashioning imaginary birds. One even finds a surprising bird through Google. There may be a tendency for poets to romanticize birds, to find in their hollow bones and fluid otherness metaphors for their own lives. But there is also a counterbalancing urge to see things as they are, and thus a large number of these poems contain unsettling moments -- moments in which the poet describes the predator's unrelenting work, or encounters a resounding indifference.

Assuming that this anthology will appeal to poetry readers and bird watchers alike, we have included a list of the birds mentioned in each individual poem, and also an index so readers can track the various ways particular birds have been "perceived" in verse. The categories take their cues not from science, but from the poems, and thus they do not follow careful classifications of order, family, genus, species. The poets, who also come from every region in the country, are listed in "Habitat and Range," and more recent books are listed in "Additional Resources" so that interested readers can follow up on some of their favorites.

This list, as most lists, remains incomplete... and there are many more poetic birds out there to be discovered by the alert reader. We hope this particular flock of poems succeeds in portraying birds in so many guises (or disguises) that one is forced to look more closely -- as if through binoculars -- to where these poets guide us.

If you love nature and birds but think that you don't like or can't read poetry, The Poets Guide To The Birds will change your mind and your idea of birding. Read it and read it again. Worlds within worlds are contained therein. --Wayne Mones (Audubonmagazine.org)

Add To Cart