Birds are our contact point with nature, our window on the natural world. There are mammals about, and reptiles and amphibians, but we never see or hear them. It’s not obvious they share the planet with us.
Birds are all around us, each and every day. If we can’t see them, we hear them, even in the heart of our cities. They inspire us to flight, to soar in hope and spirit.
I’m quick to celebrate the idea of birds’ lives meshing with ours and I was given the opportunity to explore the theme when I launched a chapbook of bird poetry, Still Bravely Singing, by Robyn Mathison at the Hobart Bookshop late last year.
Poetry is just one of the arts that reflect our avian connection. Birds over the millennia have inspired not just poetry, but prose, visual art, and song. It’s even suggested they may have inspired human song, and even speech.
Artists, though, tend to merely copy the image of a bird, and composers of music their songs. The poets like Mathison bring something else, something spiritual that defies definition.
Bird poetry is as old as poetry itself. And, because of our links to the “old country”, the quality and volume of such poetry tends to be measured in British terms. Over time a remarkable number of British poets have written poems about birds, from Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s skylark to Yeats’s swans, to Thomas Hardy’s thrush.
Australian poets, of course, have also sung of birds and Robyn Mathison is part of this tradition.
I’m not a poet, I’m a newspaper wordsmith, but Mathison and I share some common ground. In my journalistic writings, and Mathison’s poetry, we share a habitat where birds gather. This is largely the city and suburbs. In the On the Wing column I use the birds I see in my garden and the immediate neighbourhood as subjects. Mathison uses the birds she sees in her cityscape as subjects for her poems. One poem is even titled In the City Desert.
Joyous birdsong and the other sounds of nature, like the wind buffeting rain-jewelled leaves – as Mathison writes in Mist – sing from her poems. There is also a dark side, the reality that when wildlife comes into close contact with the human world there is not always a happy outcome.
She mentions 19th century Italian philosopher and author Giacomo Leopardi who, in his In Praise of Birds, suggested that where people were gentler birdsong was too. And she asks was the singing of the wattlebirds sweeter prior to 1788?
There are roughly 10,000 birds in the world and about 1000 of these have been mentioned in poetry.
Although birds are declining in both species and number, they are still bravely singing. So for poets like Mathison there remains plenty of material out there in the canopy and in the skies to – like birdsong – bring joy to our lives.
Still Bravely Singing is published by Picaro Press, and is available from the Hobart Bookshop.