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The Poetry of Birds by the editors Simon Armitage and Tim Dee (Viking/Penguin, 2009)

April's Poetry Library Book Club saw us celebrate the arrival of Spring by looking at The Poetry of Birds edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee.  Tim Dee is a radio producer who has published a memoir of his birdwatching life The Running Sky, while poet Simon Armitage says "I strayed into birdwatching four or five years ago - I have all the paraphernalia."

Rather than arrange the poems chronologically, the editors have chosen to follow the ornithological order used in the monumental Handbook of the Birds of the World (which currently runs to 11 volumes and isn't finished yet), which according to Tim Dee "allows old and new poems about the same species or family of birds to sing alongside one another".  There are notes at the back of the anthology designed to give "a little background information on the specific birds mentioned in the poems".  However, the anthology also includes poems that are not solely about a single species and so the systematic order is interrupted at intervals with sections of poems called "A Day Out", "Deaths and Depletions" and "Song".

The anthology has been very well received by critics.  Adam O'Riordan, writing in The Daily Telegraph, has said: "This is a wonderful, generous anthology, selected with all the care and attention we have come to expect from one of our leading poets and enriched by Dee... A life-affirming celebration of the commonplace yet enduringly mysterious creatures we share this world with and the poetry they have inspired."

In his "Afterword" to the anthology Armitage ponders why so many poets throughout the centuries have written about birds; "What we find in them we would hope for our work - that sense of soaring otherness.  Maybe that's how poets think of birds: as poems."  This thought stayed with us throughout our reading and discussion of the poems and we wondered if many of the poets were not only writing about a particular bird but also about themselves.

We looked closely at the following poems and library staff had prepared the following questions to lead the discussion.  We also had pictures of the birds featured in the poems to look at and recordings of the birds calls to listen to from the RSPB website http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/ to aid our discussion of the poems (and some chocolate mini-eggs to eat!).

John Clare - "Early Nightingale" p190 (notes on Nightingale p317)
Without the aid of binoculars, John Clare managed to write about 147 species of wild British birds.  Tim Dee calls him "the greatest bird poet in the language."

Born in 1793, the son of an almost illiterate farm labourer, John Clare grew up in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston and made the surrounding countryside his world.  He became an agricultural labourer while still a child and his formal education ended when he was eleven years old.  His first collection Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery was published in 1820 and was highly praised but each subsequent book was greeted with less and less enthusiasm.  Ill and in debt he was eventually removed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum in 1841, where he died over 20 years later in 1864.

1. Does the nightingale's song sound shy and fearful?
2. What is Clare describing in the line "And climb we eer so soft the spinney rails / All stops as if no bird was anywhere"?  ("Spinney" is a small wood or copse, esp. planted or preserved for sheltering game-birds.)
3. What does Clare mean by "The kindled bushes"?
4. I think Clare is using the rhyme scheme of this poem to reflect the nightingale becoming more confident by the end of the poem.  Does anyone else think that?
5. Does anyone know what a "woodman" is?  Why would it be him and not a villager who announces the nightingale has arrived?


Paul Farley - "Heron" p29 (notes on Heron p292)
Paul Farley was born in Liverpool in 1965 and studied at the Chelsea School of Art.  He has published 3 collections with Picador and was named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1999.  He has edited a selection of John Clare's poems for Faber.

1. This is a sonnet.  Does the down-to-earth language of the opening surprise you?
2. Has Farley captured the Heron's take-off?
3. What do you think Farley means by "the Icarus thing"?
4. Who is the man setting out for Superkings?
6. Is the ending more like the language you would expect of a sonnet?
6. Through this poem is Farley making a comment about his own beginnings and his life now as a highly acclaimed poet?

Norman MacCaig - "Rhu Mor" p9 (notes on Gannet p289)
Norman MacCaig was born in Edinburgh in 1910 and died in 1996. He worked as a primary school teacher for most of his life, although at the age of 60 he was appointed Reader in Poetry at the University of Stirling and Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. His poetry is said to be influenced by the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, and is known for its mixture of formal styles, free verse, simple language and lucid style. He won the Cholmondeley Award in 1975, and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1985.

1. Do you think this is a celebratory view of gannets? Is there a darker undercurrent to the excitement and energy of their behaviour?
2. The poet presents himself as watching the scene in the poem, every other verse. Do you think this makes him part of the scene with the gannets, or separate from it?
3. Rather than calling the poem 'Gannets', MacCaig has named it after Rhu Mor, a small coastal part of Fort William in Argyll, Scotland. Does the poem give you a feeling of the whole of Rhu Mor?


Sylvia Plath - "Pheasant" p71 (notes on Pheasant p299)

Sylvia Plath (1932-63) possessed one of the most commanding voices in twentieth-century poetry.  She published only one volume of verse, The Colossus, during her life and a single novel, The Bell Jar.  She was born in Boston in the United States and settled in England with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, first in London, then in Devon where the poem we are going to look at is set.

1. How has the poet come by her pheasant?
2. Is she being over sentimental, not wanting it to be killed?  (The notes in the back of the book say that 20 million pheasants are raised and released in Britain every year for shooting.).
4. Do you think she voices her thoughts to the person who's planning to kill the pheasant or just writes them down in this poem?
5. In the final line where does she "trespass stupidly"?  Is this poem just about not killing a pheasant or something more?

After looking at Plath's poem we listened to a recording of Ted Hughes reading one of his seminal bird poems "Hawk Roosting".  Armitage and Dee consider Hughes the finest bird poet after Clare.  Armitage says that Hughes "was busily re-presenting the case for nature writing when most other poets of his generation were focused on urban or sociological themes."


Kathleen Jamie - "The Dipper" p168 (notes on Dipper p315)

Kathleen Jamie was born in 1962. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 1981 and the Somerset Maugham Award in 1995. She has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize three times, and won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2004.  She has also written two books of prose, Findings and Sightlines, which are both books about birds and birdwatching, incorporating styles that vary from historical essay to travel and philosophy.

1. Were you familiar with a "dipper" bird before?
2. Do you think the poet wants to know about "the depths of the river" that the bird is singing about?
3. Do you think this is a romantic view of the Dipper? Does it say more about the narrator's state of mind, perhaps, than it does about the bird itself?
4. Would you be surprised and impressed if you saw a bird emerge from the bottom of a waterfall?
5. Does the half-rhyme in the poem make it sound like a song, to you? Is it perhaps the poet's version of a song, since she can't get closer the bird's own song that touches her so much?

Concluding discussion of anthology:
1. For those of you who know these birds, did these poems capture those birds for you?  For those of you who don't, did you get a sense of these birds?
2. Does anyone have a favourite poem in the anthology which they think the rest of the group should read?
3. Do you like the way the anthology is arranged according to ornithology?

A selection of other books in the Poetry Library collection on the theme of birds:

Adult anthologies:

Birdbook I : towns, parks, gardens & woodland -- London : Sidekick Books, 2011. (Book) Adult anthology

Birdsong -- Bridgend : Seren Books, 2002. (Book) Adult anthology

Bright wings : an illustrated anthology of poems about birds / Collins, Billy (Introduction). -- New York : Columbia University Press, 2010. (Book) Adult anthology

Hide -- Hull : Humber Mouth Hull City Arts, 2010. (Book) Adult anthology

No space but their own : new poems about birds / Motion, Andrew (foreword). -- Keighley, West Yorkshire : Grey Hen Press, 2010. (Book) Adult anthology

The Penguin book of bird poetry -- Harmondsworth : Penguin Books, 1984. (Book) Adult anthology

Twelve poems about birds / Swann, Jenny (introduction). -- Nottingham : Candlestick Press, 2010. (Pamphlet) Adult anthology


Adult Collections:

Birds reconvened / HEATH-STUBBS, JOHN. -- London: The Enitharmon Press : Enitharmon Press, 1980. (Book) Adult collection

Bird bird / HILSON, JEFF. -- Norwich : Landfill Press, 2009. (Book) Adult collection

Birds / FISHER, ALLEN. -- Old Hunstanton, Norfolk : Oystercatcher Press, 2009. (Pamphlet) Adult collection

Crow : from the life and songs of the crow / HUGHES, TED. -- London : Faber and Faber, 1970. (Book) Adult collection

Crow [record] / HUGHES, TED ; Hughes, Ted (reader). -- Baile Atha Cliath : Claddagh Records, 1973. (Record) Adult collection
(This recording is available to listen to on CD in the library.)

The equal skies / MACCAIG, NORMAN. -- London : Chatto & Windus ; Hogarth Press, 1980. (Book)

A year of birds: poems / MURDOCH, IRIS. -- Tisbury, Wiltshire: Compton Press : Compton Press, 1978. (Book) Adult collection

Art of birds / NERUDA, PABLO. -- Austin, Tex. : University of Texas Press, 1985. (Book) Adult collection

Waiting for H5N1 / ROUTH, JANE. -- Matlock : Templar Poetry, 2007. (Book) Adult collection

Bird book / WALKER, LAURA. -- Exeter : Shearsman Books, 2011. (Book) Adult collection

The bird hospital / WIGLEY, ANNA. -- Ceredigion : Gomer Press/Gwasg Gomer, 2002. (Book) Adult collection

Australian bird poems / WRIGHT, JUDITH. -- Adelaide : Australian Letters, [1960?]. (Pamphlet) Adult collection

Children's collections:

Birdwatch: a book of poetry / YOLEN, JANE. -- New York : Paperstar ; Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 1990. (Book) Child collection

Counting birds / MELVIN, ALICE. -- London : Tate Publishing, 2009. (Book) Child collection


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