Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Magic Song Restorer

In a sense, the Norton Anthology of Poetry is not just a collection of great poems but an aviary as well. From Percy Shelley's skylark to John Keats's nightingale, Emily Dickinson's bobolink, Edgar Allan Poe's raven, and William Butler Yeats's falcon, English poetry is part field guide if not tutorial in birdwatching and even the skill of birding by ear. "Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop" calls the hermit-thrush from the pine trees of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." Robert Frost's ovenbird "makes the solid tree trunks sound again." And Gerard Manley Hopkins records the lark's "rash-fresh re-winded new-skein├Ęd score / In crisps of curl..."

If birdwatching has long inspired poets, who see or hear their own singing more clearly in relation to "the thing with feathers," then it's a pleasure to see poetry—at least on the Magic Song Restorer tin of bird food pictured here—returning the favor. The prose directions on the side of the Depression-Era tin read: "Fill the treat cup daily with this song food. If the canary is run down or feeling out of sort feed this food exclusively in the regular food cup." But the prose isn't where the magic is. The magic, of course, is in the poetry printed on the back of the tin:

Magic cures him when he's sick
Magic cheers him when he's well
Makes his feathers smooth and slick
And his voice just like a bell

A little chant or incantation calling forth the forces of healing and recovery in a way that prose cannot, this quatrain also visualizes the canary getting better, narrating a process of recovery—curing, cheering, smoothing feathers—which is signaled as complete by (what else?) birdsong.


Cat said...

Love this! Also wanted to note that a current popular YA dystopic fiction series by Suzanne Collins marks the difference between destructive language and restorative verse through two fictional birds: the jabberjay (a government-designed weapon that can spy through repetition and imitation of voices) and the mockingjay (the hybrid and wild creature that emerged from the jabberjay mating with mockingbirds). In the first book, Collins incorporates the lyrics of a song into the text, a pastoral poem breaking through the postapocalyptic mayhem and "promising tomorrow will be more hopeful than this awful piece of time we call today." The third book is called "Mockingjay," but I don't know if it also has poetry in it (as I haven't read it yet).

Mike Chasar said...

The Office copy of EW has a small feature on the Collins series as "the Next Twilight."

"Both," the article claims "are addictively readable young-adult series about a female teen in a complicated love triangle. But the similarities end there. HG [The Hunger Games] is more thoughtful and much, much darker. The books (which hide a compelling antiwar message behind the veneer of a tween thriller) are exceptionally well written and expertly paced, with near-constant suspense."

Now that we know they've integrated the magic of poetry, I guess we'll have to put them on our reading list. Thanks!