Poetry, Prayer, and Birdsong

Poetry, Prayer, and Birdsong

Albrecht Dürer – The Large Piece of Turf, 1503

Three snippets from my reading this week, two online and one in a book I stumbled across at the library. They really wanted to speak together. So, here they are.

1. On Poetry and Archiving

This first is a quirky little piece that’s half profile and half musing on the intersection of two very different arts that have an elusive something in common. I love this way of thinking of the poem as an object. Of poetry as a sort of conservation. Also, it strikes me that the very act of putting the two unlike things together, is a sort of poetry.

“Poems command a space. They are structural objects.”

How does a poet become an archivist? I think I suspected the answer before I asked Erin: you approach objects with care.

I like to see the routes that lives take, and Erin’s has got me thinking about what draws us to poetry—and what we draw from it. She still feels “almost a euphoria about the language and directness of poetry, that it has both exactness and expansiveness.”

Some texts were from the 1500s, and she was “aware that I am one of so many people who have touched this book, that the book is a perfect machine—moveable parts and all. I understood my purpose as a conservator, librarian, and archivist is to help it last another 500 years and to make sure that people have the chance to work with it and be close to it. This is a piece of history that will not tell you what it contains unless you touch it, move it, and work with it.”

That sounds like the mechanics of poetry to me.

Poetry and archiving are “done often as solitary work but are really reliant on the person who is receiving and interpreting the work…Similarly, the internal logic in both poetry and archives is always present within the creator but the logic is not always evident at first glance. Both reader or researcher might need to dive deep to tease out the meaning the poem or archives holds.”

Poems and archives, she says, are “both historical records. They both can be about providing access. Of course, they both require care and observation.”

2. I took Bella to the library to return some overdue books and to find some others to pique her interest as she’s gotten into a sort of late winter slump of late. After we scoured the children’s sections for likely suspects I headed to adult non-fiction, especially the science section where I can sometimes find some books that will become her new favorites.

We were in luck. She found a memoir of an astronaut that looked immediately interesting: Chasing Space. A few others made their way into our bags, to be perused at home.

Meanwhile a green spine caught my eye: Death of a Hornet: And Other Cape Cod Essays by Robert Finch. Nature writing is always up Bella’s alley and mine too, especially local nature writing. The title makes me want to read on. I pulled it off the shelf and was greeted by the cover art, The Great Piece of Turf by Albrecht Dürer; that is promising too. I flipped it open and read the first paragraphs of three essays. We were hooked by the voice. Into the bag it went.

I’ve only read the first three essays so far, but they’ve lived up to the promise of that first chance meeting. The third essay in the book, ‘Words and Music’ is a meditation on the difficulty of translating birdsong into words on a page. I love reading poets and other writers talking about the art of translation; but this is a novelty. The idea that what is happening when we write a phonetic representation of a song is an act of translation, that fascinates me:

Birdsong, like most poetry, does not lend itself to literal translation, and our attempts to do so usually succeed more in conveying the limitations of our language than the true nature of the song. The best we can do, it seems to me, is to find, as most successful poetry translators do, some ‘equivalent translation,’ such as kong-la-ree for redwings, or Drink-Your-TEEE! for the rufous-sided towhee, or for the white-throated sparrow. Such representations are not very useful to anyone not already familiar with the songs in question, but they can give a sense of them to the ear remembering how they sounded.

And the essay’s conclusion is stunning, a deep delving into the nature of poetry and what it means to be human:

The urge itself, to verbalize birdsong, may seem trivial, even ludicrous, yet it is something we have always done and still catch ourselves doing, in spite of its lack of much practical value and scientific accuracy, much as paining has continued to thrive long after the invention of the camera. It seems part of a deeper, more persistent urge in our natures, one that goes beyond mere imitation and is deeply rooted in specific cultures. . . .

The aim, after all, is not so much scientific representation as it is too mix ourselves in nature’s voice, to put the human in the natural sound. It is, in fact, hard, if not impossible, to hear any natural sound purely: it is always altered, changed somewhat from what it is by what we have brought to it, what we have been taught to hear by previous listeners, by the stories, poems, songs, and sayings we have weaved around it, so that, as Frost put it, “Never again would birds’ song be the same.”

I don’t think this is to be regretted any more than it can be avoided. For it seems to me to be as much our destiny to assimilate nature, mentally and imaginatively, as to manipulate it with our technology and our machines. Just as birds use song to define territory, so language remains our primary tool for humanizing this strange universe in which we find ourselves. Once we have verbally insinuated ourselves into something– a bird’s song, the sound of the surf, another culture– once we have storied and versed it, it then becomes a part of ourselves and we bleed when it is hurt. Exterminate wolves and whales, poison robins, cut down old-growth trees, bulldoze a meadow, and our human life is diminished. And yet a distant galaxy, still unnamed, though it be thousands of light-years across, may perish without a ripple, without the whisper of a sound reaching our ears.

3. Finally, this gorgeous essay by Viva Hammer, writing in First Things: Bless the Lord, O My Soul: On the Gift of Prayer.

This is about prayer more than poetry, but prayer is poetry too. Especially the Psalms. And I love the way the prayer is a certainty in her life even when faith is thin or absent. There is an echo of the archivist in her statement that “prayer was passed to me for safekeeping”. And it seems that the prayers are a sort of structural object. They shape the day, they shape a life. They become a prop in times of trouble, and eventually they bring her back to God.

“Prayer was passed to me for safekeeping, and I came to possess it.
What I was praying for or to, what to do with my mind while I moved my lips, or anything other than the technical skills, no one discussed. As long as I achieved mastery over the words, my thoughts were my affair.”

I also love the freedom the structure gives her: my thoughts were my own affair. It reminds me of the freedom that the constraint of a form like the sonnet or the haiku can give to a poet. Within the structure of the prayers, she can do what she likes.

“Words I had let loose ten thousand times as a nonbeliever returned to my lips. As if from some outside source they arrived, long-familiar forms offering new meanings. The blatherings of prayer repeated by habit had made possible an encounter in the hour of need.”
“Prayer hangs over me each morning like a debt, like a headache, like love. From earliest waking it hangs: Should I stop what I’m doing and get it done? My unprayered mouth is dry, unformed, unspeaking, unspoken. Prayer is the obligation that gives me permission to begin the day, but I play games with it, knowing that if I’m not careful, I will miss the moment when the debt is coming due, and it will pass, and never return; the debt will go unpaid and my day will be unprayered.

The comfort of prayer is its familiarity, that it comes every day with the light, and at night with the head on the pillow, as the last act before sleep. It is so familiar that my body and my mind have grown around the lattice of its sounds. Prayer is a moment in which my mind is free to rove. It hosts the opening thoughts, in which I send kites out to the possibilities of the day, and the late thoughts, in which I fold away those which have caught the wind.”

“Their meaning is in the memory of my father’s voice rising and falling as I wake in the morning. Their meaning is in the air of the synagogue, dense with the decay of books. Their meaning is in the miniature siddur my mother found after I gave up searching, a siddur that is who-knows-how-old and perfect for my needs. That’s the meaning of prayer: searching through a whole city over a freezing winter to look for something that I will take with me for the rest of my life and from which I will utter prayers that have been said by all the fathers and those mothers who have time to dip into them and leave with the words that I got from my father when I was too young to know what meaning means.”

Here the prayer is also a historical record. It connects Hammer to her father, to her childhood, to all those who have gone before her. And like the 16th century books, prayer is “a piece of history that will not tell you what it contains unless you touch it, move it, and work with it.” To enter into this history, you must not just observe, you must pray.

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  • I recently read the German Märchen or fairytale Jorinde und Joringel (Jorinda and Joringel), in which nightingales play a big part. One of my commenters pointed out the interesting onomatopoeia for the nightingale’s song in different translations:

    German: zicküth, zicküth, zicküth
    English: jug, jug, jug
    Finnish: tirili, lili, tirili
    Italian: chiù, chiù, chiù
    Turkish: cik-cik-cikcik-cik
    Spanish: tirit, tirit, tirit
    Danish: kvivit, kvivit
    French: tsitt, tsitt, tsitt
    Portuguese: piu, piu, piu

    We both like the English the least. Where in the world did “jug jug jug” come from?!

    • That is fascinating. I agree about the English being the least attractive of them all. I’m familiar with “jug jug jug”, though, because T.S. Eliot uses it in The Waste Land:

      Above the antique mantel was displayed
      As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
      The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
      So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
      Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
      And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
      “Jug Jug” to dirty ears.


      Twit twit twit
      Jug jug jug jug jug jug
      So rudely forc’d.

      But, like most of The Waste Land, it’s Eliot quoting much older English sources. It looks like jug jug for nightingales go back at least to the 16th or 17th century in English poetry.

      Ballad circa 1624-1680:

      John Lyly circa 1555-1606 (Although one source I saw for the Lyly suggested the spelling was modernized and the original used an I for the J, which makes me wonder how it was pronounced. Was it more of a Y sound like Latin Julius?

      And I just realized I’ve read Eliot’s poem any number of times and never actually listened to a nightingale sing; but that I could, because birdsong is readily available on You Tube and elsewhere. So I looked up a video and listening to it I can definitely identify the part of the song that’s being written “jug jug jug” and that doesn’t seem entirely unfair, except that it’s not really beautiful enough to match the music I’m hearing. It’s interesting how poetry is so very conservative, keeping the sounds and repeating them.

      • I also found this New Yorker essay by Noel Perrin, The Nightingale Song, unfortunately hidden behind a paywall, which I now really want to read. It looks fascinating:

        The New Yorker, March 16, 1957 P. 26

        The writer was doing graduate work in English at Cambridge In a paper he had written on T.S. Eliot’s poetry, he had remarked that Eliot showed rare accuracy in his descriptions of nature. The writer’s supervisor said “Bosh,” and said that Eliot was very inaccurate about the nightingale’s song in his poem “The Waste Land.” “‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears,” wrote Eliot. The supervisor claimed that a nightingale never went “Jug jug”. Tells about the writer’s campaign thereafter to prove that Eliot wasn’t inaccurate about the nightingale. He even spent a damp evening in a Wood trying to find a nightingale. Eventually, he & his supervisor began exchanging poetry quotes to prove their respective points. Finally the supervisor suggested a long evening together over a pint of beer.

        • Coleridge used “jug jug” too:

          But never elsewhere in one place I knew
          So many nightingales; and far and near,
          In wood and thicket, over the wide grove,
          They answer and provoke each other’s song,
          With skirmish and capricious passagings,
          And murmurs musical and swift jug jug,
          And one low piping sound more sweet than all
          Stirring the air with such a harmony,
          That should you close your eyes, you might almost
          Forget it was not day!

          The Nightingale