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Poet's Choice

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

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

These quick examples illustrate the measureless range of feelings and meanings that might be associated with creatures that fly and sing.

Then there are rats. Marianne Moore, in crisp rhymes and bouncy cadences that recall the limerick form, gives a wonderful, expanding weight of pejorative meaning to the little word "brisk":

To an Intra-Mural Rat

You make me think of many men

Once met to be forgot again

Or merely resurrected

In a parenthesis of wit

That found them hastening through it

Too brisk to be inspected.

In this brief encounter, the animal's pragmatic haste about its business recalls "many men"; this is a subtle reversal, much funnier than if, in the more expected simile, a man recalled a rat. It is also more insulting to the men, because the rat is more vivid and immediate, the plural and generic men consigned to a mere "parenthesis of wit."

In Jane Hirshfield's recent book, the same rodent occasions not wit but introspection:

The Meeting

The rat was fat and healthy and equally surprised,

almost insulted. Leaving only because I was larger

but renouncing no claim.

As I, at times, have looked my fate in the face

and acknowledged nothing.

Continued as if I could, as if this life were mine to choose,

and I the unquestioned lord of my basement kingdom

with its single, high, and unwashed corner window.

Though the rat in itself -- self-confident, not quite oblivious -- could be a direct descendant of the one in Moore's poem, Hirshfield chooses to ask herself when or how she might have behaved as the rat behaves. The creature's assurance ("almost insulted") in his little kingdom is comical, but so, the poet reflects, is her own.

(Shakespeare's lines are from "Love's Labours Lost," available in many editions. Wallace Stevens's poem "Sunday Morning" appears in "The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens." Knopf. Copyright 1923 and renewed 1951 by Wallace Stevens. Marianne Moore's poem "To an Intra-Mural Rat" appears in "The Collected Poems of Marianne Moore." Scribner. Copyright 1935 and renewed 1963 by Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot. "Jane Hirshfield's poem "The Meeting" is from her book "After." HarperCollins. Copyright 2006 by Jane Hirshfield.)

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