Birdsong and the Poetry of Don McKay

bird song

From Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Chaucer to Whitman,[1] we humans have long drawn a comparison between birdsong and poetry. The Romantics were especially fascinated by the songbird’s “plaintive requiem” (to borrow a phrase from Keats), which they deemed to be expressive of beauty, truth and ecstasy. Don McKay, however, embodies a far different approach. In poems like “Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush” and “Song for the Song of the White-Throated Sparrow” (Camber), the Canadian ecopoet exchanges the symbolism of the Romantics in favour of a more scientific methodology. Poetically speaking, this has two major consequences. First, it allows McKay to be receptive to the material features of birdsong, which subsequently informs the structure of his own poetry. Second, it reshapes the relationship between human and animal. No longer are birds simply a mirror of the soul; rather, they inhabit a reality beyond both poet and poetry.

In what follows, I will first outline the Romantic treatment of birdsong, with an emphasis on the poems of Shelley and Keats. Second, I will explain how McKay’s scientific approach differs from the subjectivism of the Romantics. Finally, I will discuss how each of these approaches manifests themselves poetically, with an eye to both form and content.

Insofar as it appears in Romantic poetry, the songbird is often portrayed as an artist. Indeed, the word “birdsong” itself demonstrates the charm of such a figuration. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a song is a “metrical composition adapted for singing, esp. one in rhyme and having a regular verse-form.” Yet taking this definition literally, we will find that birdsong is not technically an instance of song, for the vocalizations of birds by and large fail to conform to the (relatively) simple rhythmic-patterns found in human poetry and music. Of course, birdsong tends to strike us as artful in a way that, say, the bellowing of a hippopotamus does not. Why is this? The answer, it seems, is that birdsong and music exist in a metonymic relation to one another, in that the former displays many musical qualities. Such is the opinion of the American philosopher Charles Hartshorne, who writes as follows:

It has nice bits of melody, charming rhythms, even bits of harmony (for birds, unlike us, can sing contrasting notes simultaneously); it has obvious examples of theme with variations, neat examples of accelerando and rallentando, crescendo and diminuendo, interval inversion, even change of key and tempo contrasts, as, for instance, when the same pattern, e.g., a trill, is given at half or double speed. (“The Aesthetics of Birdsong”)

In anticipation of Hartshorne, both Keats and Shelley style the songbird as a poet-musician figure. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” for instance, Keats is enraptured by creature’s “plaintive anthem.”[2] Similarly, Shelley’s “To a Skylark” finds its titular bird embodying the Romantic ideal of pure, spontaneous creation: “Bird thou never wert, / That from Heaven, or near it, / Pourest thy full heart / In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” Nevertheless, if these songbirds constitute the artist par excellence, Keats and Shelley also recognize the gulf that yawns between the transcendence of birdsong and their own sublunary verse. Confronted with the “high requiem” of that “immortal Bird,” Keats laments that he has “become a sod,” such that “sod” is both a term of abuse and a word describing a hunk of grass-covered earth (OED). And Shelley, moreover, speculates about the impenetrable content of the bird’s song, which he imagines must surely consist of “Things more true and deep / Than we mortals dream” (emphasis mine).

The Romantics therefore construe the songbird as inherently “other,” as beyond the subjective existence of the poet. Yet as Louise Pound explains, this otherness is fundamentally anthropocentric in character:

To such poets the bird is mainly material for subjective thought. They cannot forget themselves as they view it, and think of its experiences and destinies apart from their own. They contemplate it to find in its hypothetical situation something to illustrate their own pain. (“Note on Walt Whitman and Bird Poetry”)

In figuring the songbird as the ultimate artist, Keats and Shelley simultaneously inscribe them with human values and ideals, whether it be truth, beauty or purity of emotion. Thus, the nightingale’s call becomes an outpouring of ecstasy, as opposed to an attempt to deter predators or procure a mate. And the skylark, discoursing upon the metaphysics of death, acts as an archetype for Shelley himself. We can phrase this another way: although the Romantic poet acknowledges the transcendental otherness of birds and their songs, this otherness is invariably seen through the lens of the human.

Unlike the Romantics, for whom the songbird was of interest primarily because of its song, McKay’s treatment of the avian is far more comprehensive. Influenced by the science of ornithology, he extends his verse into areas that have not been traditionally viewed as poetic, such as the biological (“Homing”) and even the scatological (“A Toast to the Baltimore Oriole”).[3] This scientific approach also has an impact on how he handles birdsong. “Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush,” for instance, is structured around the formal features of the thrush’s call, while “Song for the Song of the White-Throated Sparrow” acknowledges the limitations—as well as the attractions—of viewing birds as artist-figures.

Considering the reverence that Keats and Shelley pay the songbird for its artistry, it is surprising how little birdsong actually influences the formal dimensions of their poetry. Despite the rhythmic and tonal complexity that characterizes the song of the Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) (see figure 1),  Keats’ poem consists of eight metrically identical stanzas, written largely in rhyming iambic pentameter. Moreover, nightingales—like most other songbirds—make great use of silence, with which they punctuate individual calls. In “Communication and the Cadence of Birdsong,” the ornithologist L. D. Beletsky suggests that these silences—which he refers to as “intersong intervals”—likely have communicative significance. Yet with its consistent meter and “jingling” rhymes, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” fails to exhibit a comparable use of negative space. And while I will not broach them here, “To a Skylark” is open to similar comments (cf. figure 2).

Spectrogram image of several songs of the Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) (Wikipedia).

Figure 1: Spectrogram image of several songs of the Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) (Wikipedia).

Figure 2: Spectrogram image of several songs of the Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) (New Zealand Birds Online).

Figure 2: Spectrogram image of several songs of the Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) (New Zealand Birds Online).

McKay, by contrast, keeps his ear tuned to the sonic features of birdsong. Perhaps the best example of this is “Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush,” which formally mirrors its subject-matter. In The Birds of North America Online, the call of the Varied Thrush is described as “a whistled tone on a single pitch, about 2 s long,” punctuated by intersong intervals of about three to thirty seconds (see figure 3). By dividing his poem into twelve one-line stanzas, McKay thereby invokes the songbird’s terse calls. Furthermore, the difference in lengths of the individual line-stanzas suggests the varying pitches of thrush’s songs, which—at the risk of sounding overly technical—range from about 2,500 to 5,850 Hz. Nevertheless, McKay makes explicit mention of this dimension of the bird’s song, writing that “a close // vibrato waking up the pause // which follows, then // once more on a lower or higher pitch.”

Figure 3: Spectrogram image of several songs of the Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) (The Birds of North America Online).

Figure 3: Spectrogram image of several songs of the Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) (The Birds of North America Online).

The song of the thrush is also alluded to by the poem’s rhythmic profile. According to The Birds of North America Online, the thrush tends to modulate the amplitude of its songs, as well as their overtonal structure, thereby imbuing them with a certain “blurry quality.” McKay achieves a comparable effect by means of his dynamic use of rhythms. For instance, the poem employs a wide range of meters, alternating between dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter and pentameter. A rhythmic “blurring” also takes place on the more microscopic level, for the poem makes use of a variety of different rhythmic feet, from trochees to pyrrhics. As a result, the poem—much like the birdsong at which it is directed—embodies “a complex sequence, rarely repeating the same note twice in succession” (The Birds of North America Online).

Yet one of the most interesting aspects of a poem like “Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush” is the way in which it makes use of silence. As a result of frequent stanza breaks and liberal enjambment, the reader’s attention is invariably drawn toward the “spaces”—both literal and metaphoric—that exist between the lines. Although this is a formal effect, it has substantive implications. Like the Romantics, McKay recognizes the transcendental nature of his avian subject:  alluding to the silences that punctuate the thrush’s song, he writes that “in this newly minted // interval you realize the wilderness // between one breath // and another.” Taken on a literal level, this passage might refer to the communicative significance of intersong intervals. However, it also emphasizes the limitations of poetic description—to wit, that poetry must to some extent fail in its portrayal of the natural world. Like the songbird that communicates with silence, “Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush” has the poet employing negative space to underscore the inadequacy of his own verse.

In Romantic poetry, birdsong is a code that cannot be broken, a lyric that cannot be penetrated. Accordingly, Keats bewails his unworthiness as a listener (“I have ears in vain”), while Shelley implores the bird to instruct him in the art of poetry:

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow
The world should listen then — as I am listening now.

The implication here is that the enigma of birdsong would disclose itself if only the poet could sharpen his “dull brain,” if only he could speed that organ which “perplexes and retards” his ascent to truth, beauty and ecstasy (Keats).[4] To put this another way, the transcendence of the bird—at least insofar as the Romantic poet is concerned—results from an inadequacy of the human qua human. McKay views this transcendence rather differently. For him, the otherness of the bird is a product of that gap which lies between the human and the wild. Thus, the enigma of birdsong is not reflective of his insufficiency as a poet, but rather of the insufficiency of poetry in general. In other words, wilderness does not exist within the poem; instead, it lives in the space between one line and another.

Because he strives to understand birds on their own terms, McKay picks up on aspects of birdsong that other poets have tended to miss. In particular, he is conscious of its formal features, which encompass both rhythm and silence. Yet McKay is by no means immune to the pull of anthropocentricism. In “Song for the Song of the White-Throated Sparrow,” for instance, he recognizes the human tendency to view birdsong as musical. “Before it can stop itself,” he writes, “the mind / has leapt up inferences, crag to crag, / the obvious arpeggio.” But in the very act of acknowledging this propensity, he also acknowledges its limitations. Certainly, the phrase “Before it can stop itself” is suggestive of a bad habit. And despite the “naturalness” of McKay’s metaphor, wherein the mind moves as a mountain goat, the word “arpeggio” (derived from the Italian arpeggiare, which means “to play upon the harp” [OED]) evokes a sense of contrived artfulness.[5] Accordingly, while the songbird of the Romantics represents the ideal principle of “unpremeditated” expression, McKay seeks to expose the artificiality of such symbolization.

[1] See Aristophanes’ Birds, William Shakespeare’s “Hark, Hark, the Lark!,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Woman (the prologue) and Walt Whiteman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”

[2] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an anthem may be defined as “A composition in unmeasured prose (usually from the Scriptures or Liturgy) set to music.”

[3] In “Homing,” McKay discusses the mechanism of animal navigation, as well as it metaphorical possibilities: “a Yellow Warbler who has flown / from winter habitat in South America to nest here / in the clearing. If we catch it, band it, / let it go a thousand miles away it will be back / within a week.” And in “A Toast to the Baltimore Oriole,” he writes, “Here’s to your good looks and the neat way you shit / with a brisk bob like a curtsey, easy as song.”

[4] These phrases are drawn from the fourth stanza of “Ode to an Nightingale,” the opening lines of which read as follows: “Away! away! for I will fly to thee, / Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, / But on the viewless wings of Poesy, / Though the dull brain perplexes and retards.”

[5] It is perhaps worth noting that humans can sing chords only in arpeggio, whereas songbirds—with their capacity for multiphonics—are not bound by any such constraint.

Works Cited:

  • “arpeggio, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web.
  • “anthem, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web.
  • Beletsky, L. D. “Communication and the Cadence of Birdsong.” American Midland Naturalist 122.2 (1989): 298-306. Web.
  • “Common Nightingale.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2014. Web.
  • Frost, P. G. H. “Eurasian skylark.” New Zealand Birds Online. 2013. Web.
  • George, T. Luke. “Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius).” The Birds of North America Online. Ed. A. Poole. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2000. Print.
  • Hartshorne, Charles. “The Aesthetics of Birdsong.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 26.3 (1968): 311-315. Web
  • Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. Ed. Jim Pollock. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.
  • McKay, Don. Camber: Selected Poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004. Print.
  • Pound, Louise. “Note on Walt Whitman and Bird Poetry.” The English Journal 19.1 (1930): 31-36. Web.
  • Shelley, Percy. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975. Print.
  • “song, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web.
  • “sod, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web.
  • “sod, n.3.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web.

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