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.