NaPoMo, Week Three: Bird Poems by Edward Thomas

And a Certain Famous Poem by Robert Frost

On Wings of Song, poems about birds , everyman's library pocket poets and Bright Wings, an illustrated anthology of poems about birds
I found both of these poems today in that book on the left.

Already I’ve met the goal of reading poems by four poets I have never before recorded. But since I got excitable and couldn’t wait for week four, I counted that last one as a bonus.

So, now, officially for week four, I have two poems about my favorite creatures on the planet—birds. Both poems are written by Edward Thomas. One is about a bird of the daytime and one a bird of the night.

I’m actually a little surprised that I hadn’t recorded anything by Edward Thomas before. I remember reading “The Owl.” I think I heard it discussed on a podcast at some point, and possibly by Robert Pinsky. But I can’t seem to find that now. I remember being so impressed by it that I was eager to dig into it and try it out in my own voice.

Why I Record

Maybe you’ve figured that out about me by now; I either record a poem because I have fallen in love with it, or because it fascinates me, and I want to see how it works. Probably both. Language in action is what fascinates me, so reading, practicing the pauses, figuring out the pace, basically deciding on the right vocal interpretation is, in my opinion, is the best way to embrace a piece and understand it.

Maybe that’s true of singers and musicians too when there is a song they love. There is a deaf poet I know who brings his poems to life through sign language and I have to guess that the poems feel more complete to him once he’s done that. Just this morning I was discussing with a dear friend who reading my poems out loud is how I figure out where the bumpy spots are, what works and what doesn’t.

Good art makes you want to interact with it. And if it’s your chosen medium, like poetry is for me, you just naturally want to taste it. I swear, even reading poetry quietly in a waiting room, I’m hearing it in my head.

Edward Thomas and a Misunderstanding

But back to our poet for this last week of poetry month. Edward Thomas. You may or may not have heard of him. While some have referred to him as a war poet, it might be more accurate to say he was a nature poet who turned soldier and died as one. He was a Welshman who became good friends with American poet Robert Frost, who inspired him to turn many of the works in his notebooks into poems.

Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917), English poet and ...
Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917), English poet and nature writer, c.1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been speculated that the Thomas’ misunderstanding of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is what led to his death in the war. John Green covers the theory in this video. This article in the Guardian also deeply delves into it and discusses the influence Frost had on Thomas and highlights some of their interesting correspondence.

Frost himself, long before the recent book by David Orr, warned that the poem was “tricky.” To be fair, plenty of people have talked about this, and even I took up the discussion in the description section of a video on my YouTube channel back in 2012, three years before Orr’s book.

That doesn’t make me special or smarter than Orr, or any of the professors I’ve been listening to and reading for 25 years. They all said some version of the same thing about how people fail to understand this poem, simply because they fail to pay attention. It’s just that Orr was savvy enough to put out a book on the topic through a popular press.

Frost is being kind to us when he calls it “tricky.” There is no special trick to interpretation. All you have to do is what most people haven’t done; read more than the first few and the last few lines of the poem. Because in the middle you’ll find the speaker arguing with his own false claims when he says:

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

Got it? Both roads were the same, and the unreliable narrator stops to confess this fact to us before he ends by saying, not what is true but what he will be telling himself years later:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one . . .

Yeah, he took the one that was exactly the same as the other one, and there was no way he could have known what might have happened had he taken the other.

But isn’t this how we humans are? We make up our history retrospectively to fit our current outlook. And that, dear friends, makes for a much better and more honest poem, than the bullshit “I-did-it-my-way” mantra of self-independence that our culture has told us it meant, mostly, because nobody took the time to read the whole poem and see it actually said.

Two Poems

I wasn’t going to get into all of that. Too late! I’ve tainted your idea of Edward Thomas. But regardless of what he may have misunderstood about his friend’s popular poem, Edward Thomas was a very fine poet himself. He was also a bit of a tortured guy who struggled with poverty and fought with his wife, though by all accounts they did love each other, and she spoke well of him after his death.  Look him up for yourself, and read some of his poems.

Here are two to get you started. I’ll save the close readings for our discussions in tbe comments. Happy Poetry Month!

The Hollow Wood
Edward Thomas

Out in the sun the goldfinch flits
Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits
Above the hollow wood
Where birds swim like fish—
Fish that laugh and shriek—
To and fro, far below
In the pale hollow wood.

Lichen, ivy, and moss
Keep evergreen the trees
That stand half-flayed and dying,
And the dead trees on their knees
In dog’s-mercury, ivy, and moss:
And the bright twit of the goldfinch drops
Down there as he flits on thistle-tops.

The Owl
Edward Thomas

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

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).

William Stafford Weekend

2013-10-21 17.48.56Okay, so he was born in January. That actually might explain a lot about the icy, cold beauty in some of his poems, like his famous “Traveling through the Dark,” and “Ask Me,” which begins with those delicious words, “Sometime when the river is ice . . . ”

But I was born in September, and the changes that come about in my corner of the world, cool winds, migration, the softening of colors, these things make me think of William Stafford. I’m not sure I can say why. Something about his ability to dwell in the beauty of the moment puts me in an early autumn frame of mind.

And since we are within a week of my birthday, it feels like a good time to share a bit more of this favorite wise, old sage of a poet. I discovered him a mere handful of years before this world lost him in 1993. Luckily, so many of his many and beautiful words have been saved. A wealth of them can be found via the link in his name in the above paragraph. You can find even more, including audio and video in Continue reading “William Stafford Weekend”

Bio Updates

Ricketts Glen, a place I visited alone on Christmas day this year. The photo was taken in the summer, the last time I had been there, over a decade ago.

And by that title, I mean biography, not biology, of course. I’ve been trying to update my biology, but age and a bad knee are making for slow progress.

As you have possibly seen in recent posts, this year I became the adopted father of a bouncing baby literary magazine. Actually, it’s no longer a baby, having been born in 2009. But I had the honor, along with my team, of leading her out of hiatus and back into the world. Holy lit mags, Batman! I had no idea what I was getting into, but gee wiz (as the young Boy Wonder might say), I’m so happy about it. You can learn all the details on Word Fountain’s page.

Along the way, the submission tracking service that I already use for my own writing,, somehow found us online, and contacted me to let me know they had added us to their database, and would I please double check our listing there to make sure the information was correct? In the call for submissions at WF I had already asked for writers to let us know how they had heard about us. I started noticing many emails stating that they found our listing on Duotrope.

Our founding editor told me that it had been her hope to eventually have us listed with Poets & Writers. Now I’m going to be honest here, because that is what I hope you have come to expect from me. I hate the name. I’ve always hated the name. Poets & Writers. What marketing genius came up with that? Poets AND Writers? Are poets not writers? Isn’t the name “Poets and Writers” a bit like saying “Dachshunds and Dogs?” To be fair, maybe prose was an afterthought. Maybe they were first into poets, and later it just sounded too clumsy to say “Poets & Other Writers,” and admittedly “Poetry and Prose Writers” sounds clumsy, and “Poets and Prosers” just can’t be done. Or maybe P&W was founded by the former student of Billy Collins who said, “Poetry is harder than writing.”

But I must confess, much as I wish they had named themselves more eloquently, P&W is indeed an excellent organization, dedicated to promoting literary magazines, and to helping poets and fiction writers find the best homes for their work. The lot of us are better for their existence. So yes, I submitted our site there too. Then after they rejected us for admittedly reasonable reasons that were easily cleared up on the About page, they happily accepted us the next day and even tweeted about us. I’ve already been contacted by writers who saw our link there, more than two weeks ahead of the official opening of our submissions window for the winter issue.

And now I’ve submitted our listing to New Pages. I’ll let you know how that goes.

So what’s all of this got to do with my bio, or as I said, bios? Well, I thought it was important as the Editor-in-chief, to be completely transparent, and make my name in the Masthead clickable, leading people here, or more specifically, to the part of my three-pronged bio under the heading of Poet. That’s when I realized there was a lot of updating to do. So I adapted the bio written for me by a dear friend who has a green pen, and I spiffed things up a bit. (Thank you, Joel).

That’s when I remembered the other two pages. Father and Birder needed serious updating as well. With the Father page, it was mostly photos I added. Heck, I’ve been writing about those three guys all along the way, especially in poems. But I had neglected the Birder page. A lot. Mostly because I had been neglecting my own mental health. That probably started with the physical–the blow-out of my knee three years back, while I was still working two jobs, and waiting tables. It hurt to walk, but walking is what made it better. I didn’t realize that I was sinking into depression, or that my health, my career, or lack thereof, were just some of the reasons for that.

So this year, as I said in the recent post, “Spring Birding,” I have been making more time for peace of mind. It started in the fall, on a warm day after a meeting with an old friend, the therapist who first helped me deal with the aftermath of coming out. It was an “official” meeting. I was worried about my son’s health, and I was not taking good care of my own. I sought him out and found he was still in practice these 19 years later. I knew that I couldn’t be a help to my son without taking good care of myself. Doctor Craig said a lot of helpful things that meeting, and he went over our time by about a half an hour, such was his earnestness for me to “get it.”

English: Picnic Area in Haugh Woods Such a lov...
Picnic Area in Haugh Woods. Not where I stopped, but it looks much like this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the way home, I stopped and parked the car at a picnic area by the road, got out, notebook and pen in hand. But something about the pine trees . . . I walked right past the picnic table, dropping the notebook and pen as I went. I didn’t even lock the car. I marched right into the woods.

Stunning, if a person can be soothingly stunned; the scent of pine, the aroma of the moist ground beneath my shoes; the gentle crackling, how had I forgotten that? The sound the dead and dying needles breaking, releasing more of their gentle perfume.

It was an hour or more away from the pine trees of the Black Forest Trail of North Central Pennsylvania, yet immediately I was back there, and 17-years-old, watching my first Red-tailed Hawk make circles over our watering hole near Slate Run. Later, in the Spring, my son and I, each well on the way to recovery, getting lost, but enjoying it, found the dirt road leading through a forest carpeted with ferns. And I was 9-years-old, marching along the path of Ferny Run, north of Farandsville, the ancient, broken stone wall on my left, the occasional rise of grown-over logging grades to my right. Again, recently near the waterfall at Hickory Run, Vincent, Amy and I among the Rhododendrons, like the ones that made that magical jungle of my childhood, up the old grassy road behind the cabin.

Why, I asked myself, when these are the sights and smells that remind me most of myself, this the air, the quality of light through branches overhead, the coolness beneath the trees on the hottest of days, why had I stopped coming to these places, to myself?

I remember now, when I started this blog, at the end of a dying relationship in 2008. I needed to write, to keep up the practice of writing, and I needed to write about the three things that “brought me the most joy:” being a dad, reading and writing poems, and walking in the forest, birds in the trees, or overhead, heard and sought. And so there you have it. Things updated, and things that had gone askew now set a bit more right. And me, home in my skin again.

Thank you, friend, for being kind today, and reading about it.


Spring Birding, 2016

Micah and I at Seven Tubs
Micah and I at Seven Tubs

We moved here to North Eastern Pennsylvania in October, and got to do a bit of hiking about, local fields, tracks of woods along railroad tracks and we took visiting friends to Francis Slocum State Park in November and I even spent a little time alone on Christmas Day at Rickett’s Glen since the weather was mild.

I think it was late October that Micah and I saw one of the largest Bald Eagles I think I’ve ever encountered, a juvenile soaring steady near the levee walk over the other side of the river in Kingston.  That same day we saw what appeared to be a fallout of Dark-eyed Juncos, and a possible Fox Sparrow. After that I think we just hibernated for the winter, getting our new home in order.

So this spring I vowed I would take some time to explore more of the local woodlands. Almost every weekend I’ve been out, sometimes with my youngest son, Micah, when he’s here, and other times alone. We were surprised to find the number of birds that can be seen in the woods near Kirby Park, including a Scarlet Tananger, Indigo Bunting, and another Fox Sparrow.

I just updated my Birder bio, and included more information about our adventures.

Since October of 2016 I’ve been living a bit further up the north branch of the river near Wilkes-Barre. I still see plenty of Bald Eagles nearby, and this neighborhood has its share of bird feeders, and therefore Accipiters. My youngest son and I have seen both adult and juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks here. In late May, well after Broad-wing migration, we saw a local Broadie on three different days, right here in the suburban hills.

Down near the river there are plenty of Catbirds, Tufted Titmice, Eastern Bluebirds, and Song Sparrows, among others. And we’ve spent a fair amount of time in the woods looking for spring warblers this year, and practicing the art of pishing. I am hopeful of learning more songs. I saw a Black and White Warbler (my first in years!) and a Pine Warbler at Eals Preserver on Moosic Mountain, where I also experienced more Eastern Towhees than I have ever seen or heard in my life. We heard plenty of Ovenbirds around Seven Tubs, and have seen both Wood Thrush and Hermit Thrush from Bear Creek Preserve to the old over-grown park of Moon Lake. We pished out into the open a Northern Parula Warbler at the Council Cup lookout, and I know I’m missing some of this spring’s highlights.

I should also mention that I saw my first ever Brown Creeper as I was pointing out a White Breasted Nuthatch. My dear brother Vincent was visiting from Northern Ireland, and days after we experienced Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park, we decided to check out the very back woods of the Bear Creek Preserve, a managed area recently acquired by the National Trust.

I was watching the Nuthatch when the something moved on the bark of a tree, and I focused right in. The camouflage was perfect, with a wide-spread tail for balance. Suddenly it dropped from its place about 15 feet up, and fluttered like a fallen leaf, only to land a nearby tree, lower down near the trunk. From there it began its jerky creeping back up. Amazing!

I found a video of the behavior, but it doesn’t quite capture the grace of the fall, which to me seemed like behavioral camouflage.

Like I said in the Birder bio update, I don’t take cameras, just my Nikon binoculars, and sometimes my scope, especially if I’m watching waterfowl, or something more likely to sit still for periods of time. So the photos I do get are either from a friend whom I’ve coerced into tagging along, or else they are phone captures. So forgive the lack of actual birds in these photos, but I thought, despite the mediocre quality of the shots, you might enjoy some proof of our adventures.


Poetry Month Then and Now

English: Signature of Shel Silverstein.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night Rebecca, George, Magda and a small group of library patrons celebrated National Poetry Month by gathering in the reading room at the Osterhout Free Library for Wilkes-Barre’s first Third Friday Art Walk of the season.  Patrons stopped in, some to watch and listen between checking out the historic photographs and paintings on the wall, and some to spend a little time reading with us. The majority of the poems were from books of children’s poetry. We had everything from A. A. Milne and Shel Silverstein to Robert Lois Stevenson and Sherman Alexi.

Next month we’ll be celebrating the release of the new Word Fountain literary magazine, which has been on hiatus for the last two years. Recently some other new library employees agreed to join me in editing a relaunch. The submission deadline was April 1st, and we had no idea how many submissions we would get. Thanks to Duotrope adding us to their database, and promotion through the library and sites like NEPA Scene and Poets of NEPA, we were overwhelmed by the response! So if you submitted and haven’t heard from us yet, we’re down to making the difficult, last-minute decisions, so you’ll hear from us soon.

line art drawing of catbird.
The Catbird (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before going back to finish up Word Fountain though, I’ll be taking this week off to spend time with one of my best friends in the world, as fellow poet and member of the original triumvirate who led the old website, Vincent Creelan comes to visit from Northern Ireland. We’ll be trekking through the woods, looking for birds and geologic rock formations, drinking wine and reading poems together. So, I know I’ll return back to you refreshed for next week.

And while gathering things like binoculars and field guides today, as I do a bit of house-cleaning in preparation for Vince’s arrival, I thought of a poem about birds that I wish I had shared with the group at the library last night. By this point in my life I could probably recite this poem by memory, but here is a video of me reading the poem in King Street Park, Northumberland as my family was celebrating National Poetry Month about this time four years ago. We don’t always gather in local parks with sidewalk chalk, poetry books and a guitar, but when we do, we certainly get the neighborhood’s attention. Then again, they probably just think, ‘Oh, it’s that weird Bauman family again. They’re always doing stuff like that. Bunch of hippies.’

The Kitty-Cat Bird

The Kitty-Cat Bird, he sat on a Fence.
Said the Wren, your Song isn’t worth 10 cents.
You’re a Fake, you’re a Fraud, you’re a Hor-rid Pretense!
–Said the Wren to the Kitty-Cat Bird.

You’ve too many Tunes, and none of them Good:
I wish you would act like a bird really should,
Or stay by yourself down deep in the wood,
–Said the Wren to the Kitty-Kat Bird.

You Mew like a Cat, you grate like a Jay:
You squeak like a Mouse that’s lost in the Hay,
I wouldn’t be You for even a day,
–Said the Wren to the Kitty-Cat Bird.

The Kitty-Cat Bird, he moped and he cried.
Then a real cat came with a Mouth so Wide,
That the Kitty-Cat Bird just hopped inside;
–Did the Kitty –the Kitty-Cat Bird.

You’d better not laugh; and don’t say “Pooh!”
Until you have thought this Sad Tale through;
Be sure that whatever you are is you
–Or you’ll end like the Kitty-Cat Bird.

Theodore Roethke