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Bill Morgan's "Six Tree Sparrows"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Bill Morgan

Introduction and Text of "Six Tree Sparrows"

Bill Morgan's beautifully crafted piece, "Six Tree Sparrows, plays out in three unrimed verse paragraphs (versagraphs), resulting in a colorful drama in which the birds strip foxtails in a cold, snowy field in winter. Even with its flaws, the poem speaks powerfully, and without the regrettable final line, this piece could very well be considered a Christmas-season testimony to the birth of Divine Love for all created beings.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Six Tree Sparrows

Among the dozens of Juncos, six Tree Sparrows,
low in the snow-crusted field, make their way westward
through mixed grasses, calling discreetly to one another
in calm, candid voices like so many small wooden flutes.

In this late-afternoon work, each bird settles
about two feet up on a pale yellow Foxtail seed spike,
slim and tall, and rides it, bowing, down—
tail and wings buzzing in quick bursts, for balance—
then slides along toward the brown tip,
pins the cluster to the ice and strips it, telling and re-telling
a narrative of progress to the others, who listen,
feed, and reply. This goes on, stem after stem, for half an hour.
Then their little rusty caps, black breast spots, and white-
barred wings rise [up] and disappear into darkening trees behind.

Theirs is a contented, un-self-conscious harvest song;
theirs a labor elegant, precise, perfectly fitted to itself.
One watching could almost believe in a peaceable god.

Bill Morgan Poetry Reading Part 1: "Six Tree Sparrows" at approx. 8:20

Commentary

This poem dramatizes the task of six birds as they go about finding food in winter.

First Versagraph: Flute Like Bird Voices

Among the dozens of Juncos, six Tree Sparrows,
low in the snow-crusted field, make their way westward
through mixed grasses, calling discreetly to one another
in calm, candid voices like so many small wooden flutes.

In the first versagraph, the speaker reports that he is observing six birds, who happen to be tree sparrows. They are moving "westward." He then likens the sounds that the birds are making to "small wooden flutes." He claims that the birds call "discreetly to one another," and their voices he finds to be "calm" and candid." The reader may be in awe of the flute comparison but wonder why the speaker would claim that the birds call to one another "discreetly."

In order to determine the presence of discretion in the behavior of another, one needs to determine motive. The bird-watcher can certainly determine the bird's motive in rummaging for food but not whether the bird intends to be discreet when he calls to other birds. Reading the mind of a bird is beyond the talent of a poet!

Second Versagraph: Detailed Activity

In this late-afternoon work, each bird settles
about two feet up on a pale yellow Foxtail seed spike,
slim and tall, and rides it, bowing, down—
tail and wings buzzing in quick bursts, for balance—
then slides along toward the brown tip,
pins the cluster to the ice and strips it, telling and re-telling
a narrative of progress to the others, who listen,
feed, and reply. This goes on, stem after stem, for half an hour.
Then their little rusty caps, black breast spots, and white-
barred wings rise [up] and disappear into darkening trees behind.

The speaker then details the actions of the birds as they strip the seeds from a foxtail. The unfortunate intrusion of "I think" weakens the mood: "each bird settles / about two feet up on a slim, tall seed spike, / Foxtail, I think, and rides it, bowing, down." The description of each bird's action is marvelous, however, giving the reader a joyful experience in watching the skill of the birds. The speaker reports that the birds, as they wrestle with the foxtail, cause their tail and wings to "buzz[ ] in quick bursts." Just a wonderful way of noting those actions!

Then again, alas, the speaker intrudes upon the moment by claiming that they do this thing with their wings and tail "to adjust for balance." Even if the speaker could be certain of adjusting for balance being the reason for the quick bursts, it weakens the effect of his brilliant language choices that sufficiently portrayed the exact actions. The reader simply does not need to note the possibility that the bird buzzes his tail and wings to keep his balance.

The speaker then states that the bird, "slides along toward the brown tip / pins the cluster to the snow and strips it." Again, the speaker is offering a wonderfully economic description of the bird's action. The speaker/observer adds that while the bird is moving along this stem, he is "constantly / narrating his progress to the others, who listen / feed, and reply."

The speaker then reports that this awe-inspiring little scene continues with the birds moving "stem after stem," for as long a "an hour." Then he watches as their little colorful body parts "rise up and disappear" into the line of dark trees that has served as a background for their activity. The speaker captures their departure from the scene by giving the colorful description of the bird. Except for adding the unnecessary "up" after "rise"—rise always means up, no such act of rising down is possible—the lines are graceful and melodic.

Third Versagraph: An Unfortunate Admission

Theirs is a contented, un-self-conscious harvest song;
theirs a labor elegant, precise, perfectly fitted to itself.
One watching could almost believe in a peaceable god.

The final versagraph should probably have been omitted. The speaker merely editorializes about the birds, describing their song and their labor, and offering what amounts to a commentary on the speaker/observer's religious inclinations, which unfortunately, seem to lean toward atheistic, or agnostic, at best.

An Unnecessary Intrusion

This magnificent poem dramatizes a slice of natural existence, and for the most part, it does it astonishingly well. The speaker's accuracy suggests an intuition that is readily accepted as truth even for the reader who has never watched bird activity. As already noted, a few flaws do limit the poem's success. Especially egregious, however, is the last line: what a place to announce one's atheist-/agnosticism leanings! The speaker has just dramatized actions that testify to the Intelligence of the Presence that creates and sustains the cosmos.

The speaker even states that fact clearly: "theirs a labor elegant, precise, perfectly fitted to itself." Yet he chooses to leave his readers with the philosophical conundrum that this "elegant, precise, perfectly fitted" activity might, in fact, just be chance emanating out of chaos.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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