Put a Bird In It

This writing/reading activity is designed to help students: 1. become familiar with the slow and deep reading required for poetry, 2. to think about how birds, as part of the natural world and symbols of the natural world, function in poems, and 3. to play with words.

Birds, both those named and unnamed, often appear in poems. In praise or metaphor, as symbol of hope or delight or despair, etc., they do a lot of work*.

First, pick 3-5 poems from the list and find the bird(s) in them. Consider the following questions as you read slowly through your selected poems: What kind of bird is it — name, color, size, etc. ? What is the bird doing, both in the poem and for the poem? Does it symbolize something? Is the bird the subject of the poem, or the object of our gaze? How and why is the bird important for the poem?
Next, pick out some lines from your chosen poems that you like or that stand out to you as powerful or interesting or strange. Play around with these lines and combine them to make a new poem in the form of a cento.
Bonus: Do you have a favorite bird poem? What is it and what is your bird doing in it?

Poem List:

To the New Journal/ Susan Rich
Bel Canto/ Jane Yeh
Forsythe Avenue/ Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Joy/ Miller Oberman
Birds Punctuate the Days/ Joyce Clement
The Rules/ Leila Chatti
Water Picture/ May Swenson
From Blossoms/ Li-Young Lee
Three Songs and the End of Summer/ Jane Kenyon
Vow/ Diana Khoi Nguyen
Practice/ Ellen Bryant Voigt
Auto-lullaby/ Franz Wright
Ode to the Letter B/ Aracelis Girmay
I Would Do Anything for Love/ Traci Brimhall
Above, the Geese/ Gillian Sze

*This idea of birds doing a lot of work is partly inspired by these words from Ada Limón and Franny Choi on a versus podcast:

Ada Limón: Yeah. I think, for me, there are a couple of new poems I’ve been working on. One of them, just recently, where I saw a beautiful kestrel that was on a really small branch. And I kept sort of loving this image of a heavier bird being held up by a small branch, right. And I kept thinking, I’ve got to do something with this, I’ve got to do something with this. And then, really, towards the end of the poem, I realized, like, I want this image to somehow tell me that as the branch, I can bear more, and I can bear a lot. And as the bird, I can balance on barely, you know, on something that’s barely there. And yet, in the poem, I recognize that it’s not telling me that, right. That that’s actually—all it is is a bird doing its thing, landing where it needs to land. And, you know, I want to look at those lessons. But I also need to pull back and think, okay, maybe it’s just a noticing, and that’s what my job was. And not always turning it into a … fable, you know. (LAUGHS) Or an idea that will somehow rescue the speaker. And in this case, you know, the speaker being me.

Franny Choi: Yeah, that helps me totally see what you mean when you say, allow the animal to be an animal alongside us as animals. Like To just like, be with them in an environment together, rather than being a colonizer like, be like, th, like, how is

Ada Limón vs. Epiphany