68I’ve long had a personal theory about the variations in the song of the northern mockingbird: being an aggressively territorial bird, I’ve wondered if one function of the frequent variations might be to make other birds feel disinclined to stick around. That old adage about “birds of a feather” has a lot of truth to it: birds like hanging around their own kind, and don’t usually hang around birds of other kinds except under extreme circumstances. I realize that the mockingbird’s imitations of a specific bird – a blue jay, for example – don’t usually fool any of that specific kind – a real blue jay, in that example. Except the mockingbird need only fool a real blue jay if its intention was to attract another blue jay. If instead the mockingbird’s intention is to clear the territory, he need not fool the blue jay, but rather only fool other birds just enough into being suspicious of a blue jay being nearby, enough so to make the others feel like flying off to find their own kind elsewhere. Like, knowing Russian not necessarily well enough to fool a Russian citizen, rather only well enough to fool any non-Russian that there might be a Russian nearby, or like how a low-budget movie doesn’t need to have a legal chess position on a chessboard in a scene to fool the average viewer into believing some intelligent strategy is being conceived.
Something that’s interested me recently: although the mockingbird has been a frequent visitor to poetry, most poems that mention mockingbirds does so without any apparent reference — either explicit or implicit, not even in any background metaphorical sense — to that most well-known character trait of the bird, that predisposition to song imitation. Nor, for that matter, to another well-known character trait of the mockingbird that ought make great fodder for poetic metaphor: their aggressive territoriality. Some illustrative examples —
- A Treatise on Poetry: IV Natura — Czeslaw Milosz. “America’s wings are the color of a cardinal, / Its beak is half-open and a mockingbird trills / From a leafy bush in the sweat-bath of the air.” Now I’ll grant that it’s difficult if not impossible to ever portray America without implying at least a degree of intrinsic deceptive mimicry, like imitation cheese or copycat styles. But if that’s meant in this poem, one has to come to the poem with the same cynicism American’s are taught from childhood. On its face, the poem is doing little if anything beyond hearing a loud birdsong that might represent many voices, but not necessarily imitating those voices, but rather perhaps in the one beak representing them all.
- After Metaphysics, or When the Fly Leaves the Flybottle — Deborah Slicer. “Just when I’m ready to call in the day and put it to bed without supper / you send the mockingbird who plays with his musical zipper, / exposing the World’s underlife.” Perhaps the mockingbird may be the best bird to point to for such exposure, although others could certainly lend greater cynical irony to the gesture, but does this directly call to the mockingbird’s mimicry or territorialism?
- Caboose Thoughts — Carl Sandburg. A relatively minor character trait is called on here: the mockingbird usually sings more loudly at dawn and dusk: “I never heard a mockingbird in Kentucky / Spilling its heart in the morning.”
- Hole, Where Once in Passion We Swam — Dave Smith. Like, huh? – “I watch the pin-glare of a mockingbird’s eye cut sharply, descend / on the blank water, then emerge from himself naked / as a girl who shimmered here, once, for me.”
- “Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” — [Anonymous]. A mockingbird that won’t sing? More like, how does one get a mockingbird to shut up (without committing the sin Atticus Finch warns us against)?
- Mockingbird — Mary Oliver [Poem of the Day] As I build this collection, I may segregate out poems such as this one, which does hear the variation in the mockingbird’s song, but not distinguishing in that variation the bird’s use of mimicry.
- Mockingbirds — Mary Oliver [The Atlantic] Playing off the morning noisemaker rep. “I had nothing // better to do / than listen.” And poke a pen.
- Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday — Robert Hayden. To my own eye and ear, “fancy warbler” doesn’t sufficiently pin down the mimicry of the mockingbird’s song as the element brought to this poem either.
- Red Foxes — Robert McDowell. “She raised the barrel, sighting a mockingbird / On a telephone wire.”
- The Mockingbird in May — Madeline Tiger. “A mockingbird sings near my son’s grave” – picking up on the bird’s name, perhaps, but for a purpose unrelated to the copycat songs, looking rather to the feeling that the happy song is scornful disrespect of grief.
- The Things — Conrad Aiken. “Psyche on the stairs— // and then the north star nearer, and the snow / silent between the now and long ago / time like a train that roared from place to place / new crowds, new faces, for a single face // no longer then the chinaberry tree / nor the dark mockingbird to sing his glee / nor prawns nor catfish….” I quote a little more on this example than with the rest, partly to help make the point: here, whereas images such as the north star and the snow and the train are called to service for common, universally understood meanings and implications, the mockingbird is there only as singer of glee. The bird is called “dark,” but if its mimicry is the reason for choosing it to represent darkness versus the raven or the vulture or some other bird more commonly associated with dark themes, that is certainly not immediately evident, neither in this excerpt nor in the rest of the poem.
- Vertumnal — Stephen Yenser. Like several others noted herein, hearing the mockingbird rather than the rooster for announcing the morning: “This early morning’s mockingbird’s a rusty screw / Coming out a half turn at a time.”
- Wilderness — Carl Sandburg. Again, as with Caboose Thoughts Sandburg thinks of the mockingbird’s morning song more so than of the imitation of other birds’ songs. But do tell, what is “the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope” (other than a personal inside joke to myself that Carl can not have intended)?
So what gives here? Poets usually use metaphor either to communicate though common experience, by touching something the reader will be able to identify with, or else at the other extreme to explore uncommon experience, such as the images of death or hell or insanity. Many of these seem like neither, rather almost sometimes seem to call on the mockingbird as stand-in for just about any other bird . . . in a sense, fitting punishment for a bird that makes its living on imitation, but no excuse for the poet.
A few that do mention or use the mockingbird’s mimicry —
- A Mocking-Bird — Witter Bynner. [Poetry VIII (via Google Books)] Refers to the articulation of all other birds, also to the striped wings.
- The Mocking Bird — Sidney Lanier. Imitation, although vague as to the reasons a mockingbird might be doing so, perhaps imputing a purpose not on the mind of the bird, that akin to an RSS aggregator: “He summ’d the woods in song . . . Whate’er birds did or dreamed, this bird could say.” But then a curious spin around the volta (yes, it’s a Petrarchan sonnet), bringing in the grasshopper prey’s song to pose a question of how death fuels life. That would have been an intriguing enough question with any other insect dying to feed the young of any other bird, but gains a deep added sound with the songs of predator and prey providing the music.
- Buckdancer’s Choice — James L. Dickey. Imitation, although again imputing a purpose that might be more one of ours than that intended by the bird itself: “Her tongue like a mockingbird’s break // Through stratum after stratum of a tone / Proclaiming what choices there are / For the last dancers of their kind….”
- Littlefoot, 19 — Charles Wright. Although not explicit about the mimicry, I’ll place this one here on the suspicion that reference to cloning does the trick: “And the mockingbird, whose heart is cloned and colorless.” Yeah, well, the same could be said of some poets . . . .
- Catbirds, Mockingbirds, Starlings — John Donlan [Canadian Poetry Online] Uses the mimicry of the mockingbird (among others) to launch into the poem’s real theme (although then any connection to the birds and their mimicry seems lost, discarded, or stretched).
- Revelator — Ron Silliman. A quick oblique reference: “mockingbird / mimics dog collar.”
So, for a while now I’ve had a mind toward trying to write a poem with the working title, “Mockingbird.” Principal theme: territoriality. To be written in at least a dozen different styles and forms and voices, perhaps more, all running together as much like the mockingbird’s song as I can manage….
Edits of this post are inevitable as I continue to collect more mockingbird poem examples, then if and when I start to attempt my own writing on the bird.
Other Bird Poems Read via Verse Per Se