December 2018

Vol. 46, No. 6

Musings from the Blind Birder: Birds in Poetry

Martha Steele

When I was walking this past spring with my brother Tim on rural roads near our mother's home in northeastern Vermont, we heard numerous Ovenbirds from the forests surrounding us. After nodding our heads to each other yet again, "Another ovenbird," Tim spontaneously recited Robert Frost's sonnet, "The Oven Bird." (When Frost published the poem in his 1916 collection Mountain Interval, the bird's name was conventionally spelled as two words.)

The Oven Bird

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

Although amazed by his memory, I was not surprised that Tim could inject such poetry into our mutual enjoyment of this bird. Timothy Steele is one of America's best contemporary poets, writing in meter and rhyme during an era of unstructured free verse. He has four volumes of poetry, two scholarly volumes on versification, and edited a volume of poems by J.V. Cunningham, with whom he studied at Brandeis University. He has also received numerous awards and fellowships.

Tim's recitation of the Frost poem piqued my curiosity about birds in poetry. It is not difficult to imagine the appeal of writing about birds, particularly for artists interested in the natural world. Think of the sheer beauty of many species, the soul-shaking music of the best songsters, the nearly unimaginable migrations across the continents, the familiar sights and sounds of our backyard avian friends, and the unfolding drama before our eyes of bird interactions or behaviors that fascinate us.

That fascination with birds finds its way into more than poetry and literature, indeed, into descriptive phrases familiar to many birders: a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, a parliament of owls, a convocation of eagles, a banditry of chickadees, a chain of bobolinks, a wisp of snipe, an unkindness of ravens, or a siege of herons.

And so when you start looking, there are birds in poems everywhere throughout the ages. In fact, Tim noted that other than perhaps love and autumn, birds may be the most frequent subject of poems. In this column, I select a few poems written by New England poets. Although Tim, who has lived most of his adult life in Los Angeles, considers himself a California poet, he grew up in Vermont and notes that his childhood years were among the most formative in becoming a poet.

The poems below are characterized by their short length, for their easy and skillful flow of meter and rhyme, their subtle nuances of meaning, or their creative and engaging descriptions of the bird. For me, Frost's "The Oven Bird" started rather folksy but turned to a darkened mood, reflecting perhaps on our diminishing capabilities as we age and the omnipresent reality of our ultimate demise. The Ovenbird, which sings longer into the summer than many Neotropical migrants, is the vehicle used by Frost to convey this world view. Frost seems to draw a parallel between the diminishing song of the ovenbird from spring to summer to fall and our diminished selves as we age. Even if we may not share his apparent pessimism about aging, we can appreciate the beautiful composition, flow, rhythm, and meaning of Frost's poem.

Not all poems with birds are melancholy or leave the reader to guess exactly what the poet was getting at. I love how a good poet explores through use of meter and rhyme, perhaps in ways that surprise even the poet, how to convey an observation or feeling. In that sense, I am drawn to poems in meter and rhyme for their beauty in words, memorable structure and organization, and often stunning creativity in exploring the subject of the poem. The next example, a poem written by Tim and contained in one of his books, Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems (1986), made me smile, indeed, marvel at how wonderful the description of the bird was, and oh how so true.


Erratically, tirelessly, in song,
He does his imitations all day long.
Appropriating every voice he hears,
Astonishingly shifting vocal gears,
He chirrups, trills, and whistles crazily,
Perched at the twiggy apex of his tree.

When argued with by smaller, lesser birds,
He raucously refutes them with their words;
When not receiving notice, as he should,
From earthbound members of the neighborhood,
He drops down onto chimney or garage,
Continuing his hectoring barrage.
One might object to his inflated noise,
The pertinacious manner he employs,

Except the sequences which he invents
Are borne of urgent pathos, in this sense:
For all his virtuosity of tone,
The singer has no note which is his own.

("Mockingbird" from Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986 © Timothy Steele. Used with permission of the author.)

Similarly, Emily Dickinson's "I taste a liquor never brewed" contains descriptions colorful enough for the reader to identify the unnamed bird that is the speaker and subject of her musings, a hummingbird. Dickinson's punctuation was eccentric; scholars today still disagree about how to interpret and render it in printed form. The punctuation has been regularized here to make it easier to follow. Also, several slightly different versions of the poem exist; this version derives from Poems by Emily Dickinson (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890), the volume that, edited by her friends Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, first presented her work to a wide public.

I taste a liquor never brewed
From tankards scooped in pearl.
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling through endless summer days
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats
And saints to windows run
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun.

Our next poet, Richard Wilbur, was the second poet laureate of the United States and twice won the Pulitzer Prize for collections of poems (Things of This World, 1956, and New and Collected Poems, 1989). He related during a recorded reading of his poem, "A Barred Owl," "that a student once told her teacher that the poem started as a lullaby and ended as a nightmare." Wilbur chuckled at the memory, then noted that the poem reflected not only on the need for kindness to a child but also the need for poetry to embolden us to tell things as they are. Any birder will relate to Wilbur's explanation when reading his poem.

A Barred Owl

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl's voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
"Who cooks for you?" and then "Who cooks for you?"

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of a small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

( "A Barred Owl" from MAYFLIES: New Poems and Translations by Richard Wilbur. Copyright © 2000 by Richard Wilbur. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.)

The poems selected here are but the tip of the iceberg for poems with birds as their subject. We all have our ways of enjoying birds, but one we might explore a bit more is through the eyes of poets who can so beautifully write about birds or use them metaphorically in describing other aspects of life. I attempted to compose a poem about a morning walk with Tim and my husband Bob this past spring on a forest trail near our Vermont home. What I learned was how adhering to the structure of meter and rhyme made me explore, from many different angles, how to convey what we heard and felt standing alone in a forest with beautiful singing birds. I was acutely aware of how happy I felt in the forest that morning, but also aware that soon and sadly, I would have to wait for another spring to hear the forest chorus that diminishes and largely disappears by mid to late summer. Trying to capture in a poem my feelings and thoughts during that walk was very challenging yet quite stimulating. The resulting poem is of an amateur quality, but as the title of one of my brother's books says (quoting from Robert Frost's poem "The Mountain"), "All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing."

The Forest Symphony

Below the canopy stream rays of light
As we take notice of song, not of flight.
The thrush, peewee, and wren each take their turn
In a symphony only they could learn.
Their melodic voices belie their size
And hold attention, as if for a prize.

In view, their muted looks would surely pale
When compared to the songs that never fail
To silence our fears and lift our spirits
With piercing, reverberating lyrics.

Though ephemeral in the sense of time,
The moment lingers, deep, full and sublime.

Soon, the forest will grow silent and be
Beyond the reach of those who cannot see.
But moments like these speak more to our core
And dwarf all else that may be in store.
With quiet contentment, we now disperse,
From those who touch us with glorious verse.

Good reading, and good birding.

Author's Note: I am deeply grateful to my brother, Timothy Steele, for inspiring me to write this column and for reviewing and providing excellent comments on an earlier draft. Thank you, Tim.

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at


  • Dickinson, Emily. 1890. Poems. Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, eds. Boston: Roberts.
  • Frost, Robert. 1916. Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Steele, Timothy. 1986. Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems. New York: Random House.
  • Wilbur, Richard. 2000. Mayflies: New Poems and Translations. New York: Harcourt Inc.

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