Ruth Stone feels the connection between poetry and birdsong in "Poems," a lyric that indicates how inspiration comes to her. It's one of my favorite poems from her book In the Next Galaxy.


When you come back to me

it will be crow time

and flycatcher time,

with rising spirals of gnats

between the apple trees.

Every weed will be quadrupled,

coarse, welcoming

and spine-tipped.

The crows, their black flapping

bodies, their long calling

toward the mountain;

relatives, like mine,

ambivalent, eye-hooded;

hooting and tearing.

And you will take me in

to your fractal meaningless

babble; the quick of my mouth,

the madness of my tongue.

"Sir," Samuel Johnson declared, "we are a nest of singing birds." Over the centuries, poets have often identified with cuckoos ("Sumer is i-cumen in -- / Lhude sing, cuccu!") and mockingbirds, seagulls and herons, owls and nightingales ("Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!"). They have also noted their difference from us. They have watched them in their backyards (Anthony Hecht's "House Sparrows" nobly welcomes "these chipper stratoliners,/ Unsullen, unresentful, full of the grace/ Of cheerfulness"), followed them into the woods (Robert Burns, "Address to the Woodlark," Amy Clampitt, "A Whippoorwill in the Woods"), and tracked them down to the shore (May Swenson, "One of the Strangest," Galway Kinnell, "The Grey Heron"). They have treated them as messengers to and from the beyond, the very embodiment of a transcendent vocation.

For example, in his definitive compendium, Shamanism, Mircea Eliade points out that "all over the world learning the language of animals, especially of birds, is equivalent to knowing the secrets of nature and hence to being able to prophesy." He presents evidence that the Pomo and the Menomini shamans imitate birds' songs, just as bird calls can be heard during seances among the Yakut, the Yukagir, the Chukchee, the Goldi, the Eskimo and others. To mimic the natural call of a bird, or, more strongly, to become a bird oneself, "indicates the capacity," Eliade notes, "to undertake the ecstatic journey to the sky and the beyond."

It may be that a remnant of magical practice clings to a poet like Stone when she speaks of "crow time" and "flycatcher time," or when she mimics and even embodies "the fractal meaningless babble" of crow song. There is something irrational in poetry, which still trembles with a holy air. I've always liked that moment, for example, at the end of "To a Skylark" when Shelley calls upon the bird to teach him the ecstasy of its song. He seeks an energy that is both primitive and transcendental, the power of nature manifested through language. If he can learn birdsong, he declares, then he would sing with such "harmonious madness" that the awestruck world would pause and listen with the same rapt attention that he shows listening to the skylark's rapturous song.

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.

(Ruth Stone's "Poems" appears in her book "In the Next Galaxy." Copper Canyon. Copyright © 2002 by Ruth Stone.)