The other day a poem caught my eye because it wanted to catch my ear. I had spied or sort of spied Eamon Grennan’s “Oystercatchers in Flight” in my inbox, Poets.org’s Poem-A-Day offering.
Sea’s stony greenblue shatters to white…
To be honest, most of the time, the Poem-A-Day missives fall by the wayside, especially if, at a glance, they look long – I save them for ‘later’ and off they disappear, most likely not to be looked at again. This time, the word ‘oystercatchers’ caught my eye and then the brevity of the poem. I could take a look.
With the next glance and I saw the words looked pure sound and begged to be read aloud. I did. One. Two. And three times. The sound was a pleasure. It took something to work the line rhythms into the air. It was a roil of words. Something was going on here. I liked the way the words abutted each other, almost fighting for space and identity amidst the rockiness of the lines. [Listen to a reading of this poem in the clip at the bottom of this post — you can tell I am still working out the rhythm, sound and breath in the recording. Click on the image at the right to read the text of the poem.]
Up till then, I had just been saying the sounds of the poem. I was almost at the point of saying, “What is going on here? What is the meaning?” and some distraction reclaimed me to the busy tasks of the workday; the poem went by the wayside.
Much later in the day, someone else mentioned the poem and we brought it up on the computer to read together, trying to get out something we both had glimpsed, but didn’t really pay attention to at the time. What was going on in that poem? It looked neat. It sounded neat. But what?
Early, in my inattentive glancing, I had assumed humans for oystercatchers. Seemed romantic, appropriate for a poem and I was working at meaning through that misconception, trying to figure out the bit about orange and black and what. Then, eureka, oystercatchers are birds! a fact which google not only confirmed but also displayed and we all started appreciating what the poem was obviously saying. The poem and its colors started to make beautiful sense. Sometimes we readers of poetry just try too hard.
There is a complexity to what could just be obvious in this poem, though, which makes it delight, but it wants a bit of trying to get at. The first line gets things going so quickly and particularly with sound that meaning might not deeply render on a quick read; its not conveying in the way of obvious and ordinary everyday language where words rest on the ear starting with meaning, rather by a pay-attention-example of solid words that jump right away into the next sound, almost leaving things behind. (All the punctuation in this poem but the last mark is of a push-forward kind: colons, hyphens, even that first apostrophe which launches a reader from the first word breathlessly into the second, even the parens, which add a hastened phrase on top of the forward push.)
Just where the poem ‘turns’ there is ‘veronica’ as a verb, kind of delicious, kind of awkward, a little odd to my ear and eye. The flower is not an everyday appearance in the geography of my mind, so I am not quite guided to instant image or meaning. Or is it a reference to a Christ-imaged cloth? Or the bullfighter’s move? Not sure. Can’t tell. But then I think it could be just the sound in the word that is describing what the birds are up to, how they hang and move in the windy air: slow-slow-fastoff: verrrr-onnnnn-ica. I am still a little uncertain about what it specifically conjures, but it slows down the rhythm for a moment before the ‘then away’. Nice. It is a great sound to say, a comfort after the hard Ss, Ts and Ks of the earlier lines.
The way sound and rhythm works through all the lines is thrilling, physically manipulating when you read it out loud (do!). It’s not just because of the punctuation lack. You can hear clapping here: “tribe of black till you clap and their risen black” in the repeated slap-like ‘ack… ap… ack’ sound. And you can sense the rhythm/wind hold-shift-hold for a moment in the poem, too:
…and their risen black
as they veronica on wind and
then away with them (shrill-pitched as frighted
plovers only harsher more excited)
and riding the stiff wind like eager lovers straining
into its every last whim: its pulsing steady
The parenthetical phrase full of energy that stifles and speeds into the steady pulsing surrounding it, “harsher more excited” sending the tongue off and into the ploddingly slower single syllable words of “and riding the stiff wind like…” Grennan makes the wind of the breath match the wind of the wind. ‘Lovers’ brings back the stalling hold-in-place of ‘veronica’ with its V sound and something of a parallel image of wind fight. Then the final, almost exhaustive:
its pulsing steady
heart-push in every flesh-startling open-eyed
long-extended deepening sea-breath.
which you don’t get to without having said the whole of the poem in one long exhale. Bravo. You are breathing like the sea.
On the first few glances at this Poem-A-Day email I missed some obvious things, a now super obvious one being Grennan’s comments on the piece I would have seen if I had scrolled down a single screen from the poem:
“This poem is a fairly straightforward visual report on its title, the birds being a common sight on the coastline I live beside in Connemara, Ireland. I sought a contrast between their ‘abiding’ and the speed and dash of their taking off, their going. The lovers’ metaphor intends, I guess, a broadening or deepening of the natural facts. The absence of punctuation is a strategy to suggest the long-breath continuity and interconnectedness of things.“
I had gone straight to the sound and was quite happy for it, even blew past the title and its clue. I wasn’t worried about meaning at that point, letting words be sound for the sake of hearing what the poet was up to. I was fortunate that the poem came back to me later, grateful the time spent listening through the sound to get to the meaning: it’s quite an enjoyable observation, quite a re-livable observation shared via Grennan’s skill with the rhythm and sound in words and groups of words. I love the way this poem uses breath and sound to portray what its words observe. You’ll be missing things if you don’t read it out loud yourself.
You can see that I am not the best at making the most out of the Poem-A-Day features as they visit my already overwhelmed emailbox. I pay attention only sometimes and then often just slightly. Still, I highly recommend signing up for the service and letting poems interject as they may. When they do, let them spend time with you. They have a way of making delightful your day.
- Click here to sign up to receive Poets.org’s Poem-A-Day in your own email.
- More on Eamon Grennan at The Poetry Foundation.