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Friday, December 5, 2014

The Birds of America - James Broughton

Said the Birds of America
   quak quek quark quark, hoo hoo
   rarrp rarrp, gogogogock
   feebee, cheep cheep, kakakaaa
   coo ahh, choo eee, coo coo!

And what is the meaning of that?
said the solemn Birdcage Maker.

O nothing at all, said the Old Turkey,
we just enjoy the noise.

Why not do something that makes some sense?
said the serious Birdcage Man.

  We do, we do, all there is to do,
said the Eagle, the Lark, and the others:
  We eat and sleep and move about
  and watch what's going on.
  We mate and nest and sit and hatch
  and watch the young get on.
  We hunt and preen and sing and wash,
  we take long journeys and local jaunts
  or simply sit about and scratch
  and watch what's going on.

But that's quite pointless! said the Birdcage Man,
You'll never get anywhere that way.

Maybe, said the Magpie. Yet when this continent began
we birds were the only two-legged creatures
and we're still very much around.

What's more, the Woodpecker added,
everything man knows he learned from us birds
but he's never enjoyed it as much.

The Cagemaker scoffed: What could I learn from you?

  To do, to do, all there is to do,
said the Heron, the Crow, and the others:
  To eat and sleep and move about
  and watch what's going on.
  To mate and nest and sit and hatch
  and watch the young get on.
  To hunt and preen and sing and wash,
  to take long journeys and local jaunts
  or simply sit about and scratch
  and watch what's going on.

O that's absurd! said the Birdcage Maker,
Don't you know the real meaning of life?

Of course we do, said the Birds of America:
   quak quek quark quark, hoo hoo
   rarrp rarrp, gogogogock
   feebee, cheep cheep, kakakaaa
   coo ahh, choo eee, coo coo!



I hope you had a bit of a laugh by the end of the poem, reader, because so far as I can tell, that's certainly the point.  James Broughton demonstrates quite well how ridiculously seriously we take ourselves at times.  As far as the birds in the poem are concerned, the "real meaning of life" is experience.  In their case, song, pretty noise.  The Birdcage Maker, the poem's stand in for modern humanity, continually makes an ass of himself, scoffing at the birds' knowledge.  The birds' knowledge is older than the man's, and really, do we do much more than what the birds do?  As the Woodpecker in the poem said, "everything man knows he learned from us birds but he's never enjoyed it as much."

Since the birds represent pure experience, it's appropriate that the human analogue in the poem is a cage maker.  So often we seek to limit or contain our lived experiences.  We want them compartmentalized in a neat and clean way.  The birds?  They want "to do, to do."  The act itself is justification for acting for the birds.  Broughton clearly thinks that the act is justified by the acting of it, else why write the poem and make such a ridiculous farce of the Birdcage Man?

The poem has three great styles of voice in it.  There's the birdsong, italicized, and the nonsense syllables do a good job conjuring the cries an attentive ear might hear anywhere on the American continent.  Having not even a cursory knowledge of ornithology, I can't attempt to identify their cries, but I certainly enjoyed reading them out loud, and I hope you do too!  The second style of voice is that of the Birdcage Maker.  He comes across as dour and unpleasant, a real pill.  Lastly, there are the birds of America themselves, and not in their songs, but in plain English.  The cadence of their speech still has something of the birdsong to it, with great repetition like "to do, to do, all there is to do."

I think this poem is a good reminder for us to not take ourselves too seriously.  We don't want to sound like the Birdcage Maker, do we?

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