Wednesday, 19 August 2015

BIRD OBSERVATORY


“Why are so many male poets also birders?” asks Sheenagh Pugh in her excellent interview with Steve Ely. 

“I can think of half a dozen male poets I know or know of, who are keen birdwatchers, and not a single woman poet.”  Steve Ely replies, “It’s true – David Morley, Gregory Leadbetter, and Gerry Cambridge come to mind straight away.”

That was a challenge I couldn’t ignore.  I thought immediately of Kathleen Jamie (“The Dipper”, “The Swallow’s Nest” and “Flight of Birds” to name but three of her bird poems) and the way birds are, in her words, “the animating spirit” of her prose book Findings. 

On the internet I found Simon Armitage and Tim Dee’s list from The Guardian of the 10 best bird poems – groans – only one woman poet on the list, Gillian Clarke (“Curlew”).  I remembered Gillian’s beautiful prose/poetry memoir “All Lost Things Lie Under Closing Water”.  It begins “For a year I have observed a family of mute swans”.

Browsing in Toppings’ bookshop on a visit to Bath last week I came across Twelve Poems about Birds (Candlestick Press).  Here the male/female ratio was slightly better: Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Lynne Wycherley, Karin Koller. 

Who else?  Birds are a recurring strand in the work of Katrina Porteous and her radio piece “Late Blackbird” is build from the sounds of a blackbird’s song.  Ruth Padel’s prose and poetry book The Mara Crossing is about migration, and includes dunlin, osprey, swallow and humming bird.  “Dunlin” is written from the viewpoint of the bird in the flock –
“Then the V, and my wing pushes down
  making upwash off the tip
  which my neighbour taps
  and gets his lift for free.”

I re-read Anne Stephenson’s “Buzzard and Alder” and Christine Evans’ “Watching Skylarks”.  At which point I stop flicking through the poetry books on my bookshelves and think a bit more about this term “birders”.  In winter I see them out on the salt-marsh watching the Solway waders (sometimes for hours at a time – flasks and sandwiches essential).  They have the latest in binocular optics and cameras with very long lenses.  They wear dark green.  I’m not knocking them – I know they contribute a lot to ornithology.  But usually the majority are men.

I’ve written bird poems myself – “Storm petrels at Mousa Broch”, “Crane” (a random sighting from the footpath across the Campsfield bird reserve), “Swallows”, “Sterna Paradisaea” (arctic tern) are all in my first collection.  The red kites I saw last month near Castle Douglas have made it into a new poem.  I love watching birds and like to learn about them but I would not call myself a proper bird-watcher. 

I wonder how many of the women poets I have listed would actually think of themselves as birders?  Perhaps there is a gender difference.  In Findings Kathleen Jamie writes: “Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life.  I listen.  During a lull in the traffic, oyster catchers.  In the school play-ground, sparrows – what few sparrows are left – chirp from the eaves.  There are old swallows’ nests up there.  It’s late April, but where are the swallows?  The birds live at the edge of my life.  That’s okay.  I like the sense that the margins of my life are semi-permeable.  Where the peregrines go when they ‘re not at their rock ledge, I couldn’t say.”   Observation, detail – essential to poetry.


You can read Sheenagh Pugh’s interview with Steve Ely at

Kathleen Jamie’s “The Dipper” is on the Poetry Foundation website

Gillian Clarke’s “All Lost Things Lie under Closing Water” is at

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