Brooklyn Bridge Park birds as mentioned in famous and not so famous poems

August 3, 2022 Joseph Palmer
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When researching specific birds that professional bird photographer Heather Wolf photographed in Brooklyn Bridge Park for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s Brooklyn Bird Watch, we would sometimes locate a poem by a well known poet who had mentioned that particular bird species in a poem, or perhaps even written a complete poem about a specific bird.

There are of course many familiar poems by famous poets throughout literary history about birds like Keat’s “Ode To a Nightingale”, Shelley’s “The Skylark”, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, or Ted Highes “Crow”, but there is also an abundant amount of lesser known poems with images about our avian friends that Ms Wolf has caught on camera while making their migratory stops in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

We could start with one of Brooklyn’s own famous natives, Walt Whitman, the poet and former editor of The Brooklyn Eagle. His poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is about growing up and remembering the inspirational songs of the Mockingbird he listened to as a child.

Photo: Heather Wolf

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,

Down from the shower’d halo,

Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,

Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,

From the memories of the bird that chanted to me

One presumes the reference to the Mockingbird’s song as a “musical shuttle” refers to the bird’s unique ability to create an uninterrupted song “shuttling” from one repeated imitation to another.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

An interesting fact about another well known, popular American poet, Emily Dickinson, was that she had a lot of bird references, comparatively speaking, throughout her volumes of minimalist, eclectic poetry.

According to the poet Stanley Plumly, Dickinson mentions birds in 220 of her 1,800 poems. “Mostly she mentions them as contributions to the texture of the poem, as an analogue, a simile, a comparison, a detail, or a member of a list. Apart from her 150 uses of the word “bird”, she names the robin 38 times, the boblink 12, the sparrow 9, the jay 7, the hummingbirds 5, and so forth on down through the crow and the oriole 4, the bluebird, the phoebe, and the wren  3, the blackbird 2, while there is just one mention of the nightingale.”

One of her most critically acclaimed and popular poems about birds doesn’t even mention the bird by name, although everyone, including literary critics, seems to presume it to be her most mentioned bird, the Robin.

Photo: Heather Wolf

A Bird Came Down the Walk

A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.

America’s first internationally known African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) wrote this poem about the Sparrow.

Photo: Heather Wolf

The Sparrow

A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Ten taps upon my window–pane,
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay,
Till, in neglect, it flies away.

So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above,
To settle on life’s window–sills,
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic’s rush and din
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.

And some poets took to the lighter side, as did Lawrence Hall as recently as 2018, in a poem about the Northern Cardinal. The poet projects some exaggerated, human characteristics onto the bird that don’t seem totally unreasonable, that is, considering how admired the bird is for, primarily, it’s beautiful color.

Photo: Heather Wolf

Some Observations on the Habits of the American Cardinal

The Cardinal knows that he is a pretty bird
Splendidly attired in feathers bright and gay
He publishes loudly; he will be heard
Among the squawks of mockingbird and jay

He gobbles and scatters husks, rusks, and seeds
In self-indulgent abandonment
He ignores all others in his wants and needs
They’re secular birds; they can take a hint

The Cardinal certainly loves to be seen
At the public feeder in all his pride
Attentive to fashions, and always keen
For the Best Birds to be posed at his side

But then one day

A few remnant feathers, a ripped cardinal’s hat –
He seems to have forgotten the watchful cat.

Recently we posted a striking photo by Heather Wolf, a close up of the Double Breasted Cormorant. We found several interesting poems about this unique bird that dives and skillfully catches fish while under water.

The cormorant seems to be caught in an interesting tradeoff with nature though. While its physical adroitness underwater gives it an advantage in securing food, the composition of its feathers (unable to tread water like a duck) forces it to be vulnerable and unable to fly while it has to sit still for a spell with its wings spread wide open, and dry out its drenched feathers in the sunlight.

One poet was fascinated that the cormorant dove into the polluted Hudson River and actually caught something to eat. So the poem verges on being sort of a light commentary on the polluted river, and in praise of the survival instinct of a diving cormorant. The poet seemed genuinely shocked that something could actually live in the water, and also pleased that the bird found something to eat.

Photo: Heather Wolf

Who Knew

A pair of brown grey
cormorants sit bobbing on
perky swells
Then ploink they disappear to
The Hudson’s murky hell.

Down in Dante’s numbered
They swim blinded by pollution
In the shadow of towering
To technological evolution.

I could not imagine there being
In a river so deathly still
Til up they popped with puffed
up throats
To swallow a tasty kill.

And perhaps a slightly more difficult poem to understand, nevertheless, Amy Clampitt, a well known American poet who was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Poets, also wrote about the cormorant.

The Cormorant In Its Element

That bony potbellied arrow, wing-pumping along
implacably, with a ramrod’s rigid adherence,
airborne, to the horizontal, discloses talents
one would have never guessed at.  Plummeting

waterward, big black feet splayed for a landing
gear, slim head turning and turning, vermilion-
striped, this way and that, with a lightning glance
over the shoulder, the cormorant astounding-

ly, in one sleek involuted arabesque, a vertical
turn on a dime, goes into that inimitable

deep act which unlike the works of Homo Houdini,
is performed for reasons that nothing at all
to do with ego, guilt, ambition or even money.

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