Poet's Choice

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By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, September 3, 2006

The occasion for a poem or its central image is not necessarily its subject. John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" is not about a bird; it is about art and mortality. But on the other hand, birds, like poets, are associated with singing. That association has been built on by writers before and after Keats. Shakespeare makes the cuckoo his way of taunting cuckolded husbands:

When daisies pied and violets blue

And lady-smocks all silver-white

And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue

Do paint the meadows with delight,

The cuckoo then, on every tree,

Mocks married men; for thus sings he,

Cuckoo;

Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,

Unpleasing to a married ear!

Whereas Wallace Stevens, in the closing lines of "Sunday Morning," makes pigeons embody a mysterious, yearning spiritual descent that is also a flight:

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make


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