All poets interact with birds. Or perhaps language has an innate fascination with anything avian, as when we were children and we told stories about all kinds of flight and winged creatures. When one discovers birds it is difficult to not be fascinated by them as a symbol, so spiritually exact that they need nothing adding to them. And when a bird inhabits a text, that becomes something else too, giving it a living symbol that is common to all readers and which suddenly awakens the subconscious.

Blackbirds, especially, have been a huge resource in literature to suggest bridges between this world and others that are often darker. But there is one aspect of them, in their color and their mood, that does not depend on the poet or the reader, which is contained in their raw material and makes them unusually appropriate for self-enlightenment. If we consult poetry anthologies, black birds (either the blackbird, the thrush, the crow, the mockingbird or the rook) have been everywhere. It is an archetypal symbol that is highly decipherable, but it is its status as a messenger that has placed it as a protagonist of the poetic psyche, which has perhaps always wished to sing like it.

The following two beautiful modern poems talk about the blackbird. Both have the quality of remaining with the reader in physical pulsations that can be felt in the body and then accompany him for the rest of their lives like a refulgent ghost. The first is by Irish poet Seamus Heaney and the second by US poet Wallace Stevens. And to close the triangle of blackbirds (because their essence is more akin to that than a pair), we add The Beatles’ song, written by Lennon and McCartney, which also has that persuasive mourning of the black bird that remains close for so long.

.

St Kevin and the Blackbird
Seamus Heaney

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

 

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

 

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Wallace Stevens

 

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

II

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.

V

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

VI

Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.

VII

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

X

At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.

XI

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.

XII

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

XIII

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

.

.

.

Image 2: St. Kevin at Our Lady of Knock Shrine in Ireland / by Karen A. Doherty – Green Canticle

.

All poets interact with birds. Or perhaps language has an innate fascination with anything avian, as when we were children and we told stories about all kinds of flight and winged creatures. When one discovers birds it is difficult to not be fascinated by them as a symbol, so spiritually exact that they need nothing adding to them. And when a bird inhabits a text, that becomes something else too, giving it a living symbol that is common to all readers and which suddenly awakens the subconscious.

Blackbirds, especially, have been a huge resource in literature to suggest bridges between this world and others that are often darker. But there is one aspect of them, in their color and their mood, that does not depend on the poet or the reader, which is contained in their raw material and makes them unusually appropriate for self-enlightenment. If we consult poetry anthologies, black birds (either the blackbird, the thrush, the crow, the mockingbird or the rook) have been everywhere. It is an archetypal symbol that is highly decipherable, but it is its status as a messenger that has placed it as a protagonist of the poetic psyche, which has perhaps always wished to sing like it.

The following two beautiful modern poems talk about the blackbird. Both have the quality of remaining with the reader in physical pulsations that can be felt in the body and then accompany him for the rest of their lives like a refulgent ghost. The first is by Irish poet Seamus Heaney and the second by US poet Wallace Stevens. And to close the triangle of blackbirds (because their essence is more akin to that than a pair), we add The Beatles’ song, written by Lennon and McCartney, which also has that persuasive mourning of the black bird that remains close for so long.

.

St Kevin and the Blackbird
Seamus Heaney

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

 

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

 

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Wallace Stevens

 

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

II

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.

V

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

VI

Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.

VII

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

X

At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.

XI

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.

XII

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

XIII

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

.

.

.

Image 2: St. Kevin at Our Lady of Knock Shrine in Ireland / by Karen A. Doherty – Green Canticle

.

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