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March 2010

Why have so many poets gone to the birds for inspiration? Song certainly has something to do with it. With poets probably first being singers, birds were natural compatriots.

And how many writers were delighted to discover in some classroom those poetic collective nouns. The avian ones were particularly appealing to me: a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, a parliament of fowls.

The poems we used as models included Sandpiper" by Elizabeth Bishop

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

"Wild Swans" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.

and Yeats' "The Wild Swans at Coole"

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.

This month's prompt was actually inspired by a new anthology, Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birdsx (edited by Billy Collinsx with illustrations by David Allen Sibleyx). It seems too easy to collect a book of stories about birds. It could be part of a series - poems about cars, dogs, baseball, Elvis, parents - except that most of those DO have anthologies.

I added a poll on the Poets Online blog asking you "What types of prompts inspire you to write?" The choices reflect what I see at many workshops and in many books and websites - including this one. Topics, like birds, is certainly one of those. My personal favorite of the prompts are the combinations - like a theme and a form. Actually, all the prompts on Poets Online are at least a combination of one type and a model poem.

The three models here (and some more on the blog) make the point that poets have several takes on this avian prompt. Birds appear in the anthology as admirable, terrible, like humans, unlike humans, poetic, mythical, and humorous.

One easy path - and trap - for the poet is to overdo the anthropomorphism. That's the attribution of human characteristics to non-human creatures. It a well accepted art and storytelling technique. Animals, plants, and forces of nature are commonly personified in poems. It has ancient roots in most cultures especially in fable traditions.

Personification is a common ontological metaphor that we all learned in school in which a thing or abstraction is represented as a person. So, that is one approach you might take for this prompt.

More about this prompt and other prompts and poetry topics are on the Poets Online Blog.


Pigeons were grey with the ash they brought over the river
from the city (New York)
and left white, runny crap on Elysian Park’s red bricks
that sizzled in July’s sun.
But if they’d watched the pigeons land in the grass
and fight for pieces of poppy-seed bagel,
they would have seen pastel pink and blue
chalked onto their wings as I had,
and wondered how the colors got there.

Kathleen Harm


duck sits statuesque
neck stretched tautly
as if waiting for the
wind to propel it across
green glasslike waters
three ducklings lined up behind her

leaping frog causes
pandemonium as she splashes
her way through the calm
the rustling in the trees
and the smell in the air alerts
an april storm is near

it's that smell that reminds
me of the hummingbird
hovering beside me
as i twirled around the mulberry tree
at grandpa's house
just before the rain

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


The air overhead cold and damp
inhaled with exertion through
reptilian holes
warmly expelled
over fleshy cords
in the pitch of Spring.

Michael P. McDermott


Sun scales city
fractures rooms

between buildings
throats take turns

a fowl ensemble of
gull, crow, goose

sopranos scream
mezzos squawk

the bass boys honk
like squeeze toys gone mad

ledge pigeons
nervously hum along

high wire chirrups
rooftop cheeps

trill and twitter
punctuate spring air

misfits all – this choir of

random liftoff
when it comes - oblivious

the damage irrevocable
tangled awake

mummified in white

I am rendered helpless
by seabird bedlam

Del McNulty


There are no walls where the geese eat my bread and beg for more
and drink the lake like lemonade, and the dead
lie shoulder-to-shoulder. Gaggles of them,

geese, that is, not the dead, walk all over the headstones,
not standing on ceremony, selfish, hungry creatures
always looking for a handout
as I walk among them
just as selfish,
just as hungry,
just as begging,

feeding them, the geese, not the dead, day-old bread
specifically because there are no walls where the geese
eat my handouts and beg for more and drink the lake
like lemonade, and the dead, the dead,

not the geese,
lie shoulder-to-shoulder
just as begging,
just as selfish,
just as hungry,
in my opinion,
as I walk among them
where there are no walls,
and yet I come here even though
with slow, black eyes on the roof of the long, low mausoleum
and peeking through the trees, a murder of crows
as if they know,
as if they see
the very wall of my soul.



a brood of hens from the neighbor's yard
makes breakfast sound
like I am in town

a flight of doves and the sun
outside the morning window
signal a quiet, sad day

a murder of crows at noon
in the dead willow tree
announces change for the afternoon

a charm of goldfinches
stirring seeds at the feeder
reminds you to make tea

a gaggle of geese heard
but too far to see in the falling light
means lock the door

I dream of a trip of dotterel migrating in the spring.
Females brighter colored than the males
indicates the role-reversal in raising the young

I fly with them to a plateau over a high falls
and glide over moors and lowlands.
Wings brush my face and I awake, falling.

Ken Ronkowitz


The sun sets proud above the woods.
Green trees are blackened silhouettes,
pleading fingers towards the crimson sky.
“It’s the last day of August,” Paul says.
Just after I take my place upon that white pedestal,
a flock of birds come swooping across the lake.
They skirt the surface, but won’t disturb it.
Just before collision
they veer right,
gliding over the stragglers-
and a shriek pierces the falling stillness:
“Mom, it pooped on me!”

Christopher Morriss


Waiting for the train home
I watch a crow peck at the eyes
of a roadkilled rabbit.
Not a pleasant sight, but
more interesting than the newspaper.
Two stories there that I will never know
and each story connected to others -
an empty space in a warren,
another rabbit waiting
and though I never think of crows this way
a nest of sticks and twigs woven tightly together
and lined with grasses,
a clutch of eggs.

Not a home,
just a place for a purpose
and the young should leave as quickly as possible,
to be less vulnerable.

The bus arrives and when I walk to the back seat,
it moves forward and I am motionless in space
for a moment watching the crow peck.
Misery does not love company.
It despises it.

Charles Michaels


The limbs are still as bare as on the shortest day.
I watch the dark scrabble of sticks
Perched in the tallest branches behind the house.
The dark nest there at the top draws the eye.

Last year we saw them, the pair of hawks,
      First one, then the other.
They settled in, then came and went,
      While tiny buds swelled, opened,
      And leaves sprouted, spiraled, spread
      Even in the highest branches.
We heard their piercing cries as they soared, hunted, left, returned.
One day, I heard the unmelodious “gwawp” of someone new,
      A baby, in the nest.
For weeks, we watched to see the young hawk leave the nest
      On wavering wings,
But leaves, bright color, softened the grim dark gray of branches,
      Then made us forget the nest.
      Spring became summer.
Instead of sky, we watched and tended growing things
      Here on the ground.

Yesterday, I heard a hawk’s cry, its chill command,
      Then saw it glide overhead,
      Impassive warrior
      Against the blue late winter sky.
But it did not circle or stop.
     I wait and watch.

Kathy Nelson


in the early morning hours
when you seem to invade
a sleep that was once deep
i feel your pressure
in the soles of my feet.
shoes to the so called underworld, as if i were cinderella waiting
for the perfect fit that all along belonged only to me.
these slippers seem to be mine until the first bird knocks it beak
against the window
courting its own reflection.
ever so hopeful that the pretty one will want to be invited in to become one.
all day it will move from one pane of glass to another.
singing one syllable of hope after another.
i lie enamored with its perseverance
and wonder about my own.
this begging to be invited in
while on the south side
an orange door remains open.

Patty Joslyn


There are words that lead into words,
That pull you in like the sudden spike
Of a strong drug,
Words whose meanings unfold,
Revealing layer upon layer,
Myriad thoughts,
The petals of old roses,
Shark teeth.

But each revelation is incomplete,
Relies on the understanding
Of an additional equation
Always a few pages ahead.
It is gravity in reverse,
Where conclusion precedes supposition,
A house of mirrors for the mind.

There are words that lead away from words,
That do not command,
Less than certain,
They paint a cerulean sea
And tell how the pelican folds his wings in flight
Like a collapsed umbrella
And dives into a shoal of sardines,
To satisfy his hunger.

Russ Allison Loar


The small gray brown I don't know their name birds
want the sunflower seeds and the black thistles.
They know they rest with small pinpoints of soft corn
on the window ledge.
They know the cool air
The undressed bush
That carries them closer.
These no name birds know
The feel of cement under their tiny claw feet-
Hard cement covered with rain wet yellow seeds
and dark seed spheres.
They come at the first inside shake of the birdseed bag
as I stand by the window in fur slippers
resembling chinchillas .
Light is not in the sky.
Like dogs they come.
Their unshod feet grip the swinging branches
These who knows their name birds watch the seeds on the sill.
Several sway on the arthritic bush branches
Large brilliant Blue Birds screech
like my newly wed neighbors up all night yelling about money.
The big birds let the world know
What is theirs.
It is cool not cold like in November
When the seeds were heat.
They still need to peck at
Seeds that excite their throats
and nourish.
The no names wait by the windowsill
For seeds to fill their bellies
And the big bully birds to fly away.

Elizabeth P. Glixman

for Elihu Burritt and “Assisted Emigration”

All those good British farm folk you helped
settle in America – just see what they brought
with them. Now we’ve got European Starlings
and English Sparrows in our barns and fields,
our parking lots and fast-food dumpsters.

But there’s one bird, you say, that never
could be at home here: the Rook, that grave
and aristocratic Duke of baronial halls.
Our New World oaks aren't ringed with enough
history; we lack the Norman cathedrals

to suit his feudal temperament, his passion
for antiquities. You find his wit more astute,
subtle, and cunning than our Yankee
crow’s. No, keep him in the Old World. We
have enough cunning of the human kind.

Taylor Graham


Out of a grey steel and satin sky
and a cloud of descending geese,
a maverick Pink-Foot lands close by.

So close, I can see each brushstroke
of its painted glory, its knife-blade
primaries splayed above its snowy rump.

Its sepia head, no bigger than my fist,
sleek with graded feathers flowing
towards its back, twists to preen.

For a moment I look into its bright eye,
imagining the circuitry in so small a brain
navigating from Spitsbergen to Solway.

My pink-foot tires of me, flaps off to merge
into the feeding flock on the water.
I think of an old song: ‘Traveling Light’.

Vivien Jones


They can’t fly,
but they may try.
They swim in the cold
and the males hold
their young like a nest
and close to the breast.
They are black and white
and hard to see at night.
With their little feet,
they waddle to their own beat.

Emily Henderson

Who died to young

This woman who read Hemingway
Was not going to waste time
On men with short peckers or trapped or netted lives.

When you said to her, “want a sherry?”
She said, 'I gave my cherry to a crow
Who thanked me not..'
She laughed Scotch or whiskey.
Neat or on the rocks
But do not be sparse
I am greedy.”

But it was death
Who fell, as a bird
In love with her,
For Death is not only old
Nor grizzled
But desires as a crow.

She did not wait for old crows in a urban
Landscape of oak trees
No pigeon filled her cup
And emptied her cup
And did not listen to her
When she asked
“Is the cup full or empty.?”
My colleague crows are speaking
They cannot be interrupted.

She had a long time of suffering
She was an English major
Who laid by, “The ballad of Twa Corbies”
To make the painful archaic words
Easy to understand.

I heard her whisper about me
‘Strange bird”
Without knowing that all birds
When grouped become stranger;
The ordinary flock breaks down
Into a covert of coots
Or last generations hoots
A dole of doves or a flight

Think of a muster of peacocks
Versus a parliament of owls,
The eyes on their back feather
While other eyes are for the night.

A congregation of plovers
Makes me wonder about penguins.
That's how the nuns in Rome
Are called, ‘penguinei’.

There is a watch of nightingales
Against an exultation of larks
One the evening song
One the Alba, the dawn of old poetry.

She was an English major
Black haired, long limbed Jane
Who jockied the young men around
Only Hemingway would know
How to spring a hunter's net on her.
All others were black crows
A murder of crows
Even Death who caught her young.

Edward Halperin