Poetry Month, Week Three: Barbara Crooker’s Towhee

A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus...
A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) searching for food on the ground. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the immortal Bard once said, “A Tohee / by any other name would sing the same.” Okay, I admit it, I might have misquoted. But you get the idea. Birds’ names sometimes evolve, usually because, in the process of studying them, we learn new things about them.

In this case, the Rufous-sided Towhee was once thought to be one species. And though I still tend to think of the Towhees I see while out birding in Penn’s Woods as Rufous-sided, they have officially been designated a separate species from the Spotted Towhee of the west. The folks at Audubon’s “Birdnote” have a nice little summary of the way bird names have changed over the years. It even includes a bird I saw yesterday, the Northern Flicker, which went the opposite direction. Instead of two species, Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted, it is now considered one species with multiple variations.

Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whew. And then there’s the pronunciation. I’ve always said it like this: “Toe Hee.” But when I listened to the recording in the above link, my heart sank. I had already recorded today’s poem, but what the heck was this lady was saying! “Towy?”

So I went into research mode and discovered that it can be pronounced both ways. Several articles and every dictionary (for what it’s worth—I’m not sure they actually consult ornithologists) seemed to mention only the pronunciation I have used for years. And while it doesn’t discuss how to say Towhee, Kevin McGowan’s article did a lot to soothe my nerves. As he says:

If it bothers you when people say it differently than you do, lighten up. They’re just birds, for goodness sakes, and THEY don’t care what you call them.

None of these name-changing or pronunciation issues do anything to lessen the deceptively simple beauty of today’s poem by Barbara Crooker. A few articles were rather vague about how the Towhee’s name had something to do with it’s “che-wink” call,  but you can clearly hear in the bird’s song the comforting encouragement to “Drink your tea.”

The poem’s epigraph is from another favorite poet of mine, Jane Hirschfield. Thank you, Barbara Crooker, for writing this poem, which I discovered for the first time today, following so aptly the time I spent in the forest this weekend.

More on that next time.

You can read along in the winter 2014 edition of Little Patuxent Review: A Journal of Literature and the Arts. (Check out more from that issue by clicking here).

Day 15 – 30 Days, 30 Readings: “Stone,” by Charles Simic

Sling-back Sunday maybe? On this day in 2012:

This is another from what’s sort of loosely becoming a best-of collection from my month of poetry recordings six years ago. Each poem was recorded, uploaded to YouTube, and blogged about in the course of a day. So, there are plenty that were fine but can stay in the archives where they are.

This is one that just kind of came together, one of the few I memorize and “performed.” Looking back, my interpretations might have come out different, but I am pleased when it feels like I was present when a little magic happened.

David J. Bauman

Photo by Michelle Blankenship

Well, I finally got a bit of  outside reading done, though I had to try several takes from multiple spots, due to background noise.  I abandoned one reading done from the balcony of a local restaurant, simply because I didn’t like the inflections of my voice. While listening in the car afterward I decided that I hadn’t read the poem right. So I’ll save May Swenson for another day.

In the end, I came back to this poem, by Charles Simic, which I had memorized last week. I frankly am no good at memorizing my own poems. Why? Possibly because they go through so many drafts and re-writes and fits of editing that I am never sure which is the version I most recently decided was the best. With the poems of others I only know one version, and so it’s easier. Therefore, I try meticulously…

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