Jan 15, 2011

Jane Hirshfield, "The Woodpecker Keeps Returning"


Woodpecker Keeps Returning by Jane Hirshfield : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I’m pretty sure that in every encounter with a woodpecker, I’ve heard the bird before I’ve seen it, which leads to more careful observance of some grand trees. If I do sight the bird, it feels more special because it took patience.

Until last January, I’d never seen a pileated woodpecker, and I had no idea they were so large (like the crow, about 18 inches in length). Their attack on wood echoes; it sounds a lot more like a sledge than a tack hammer. Big bird, red crest, striped cheek, big drum: it’s almost too much drama to endure.

What if a woodpecker chooses the wood of your house for his searching, his hammering? Even the little Downy could become intolerable in no time. Jane Hirshfield’s short poem wonders about that and comes to a surprising conclusion in the final couplet.

Maybe the progression of experience goes something like this: Hear the bird, shoo the bird, surrender to the bird, become the bird—not only that bird but also his missing mate. And yet, at the same time, remain your human self. You and the bird are two ways of being in the world, but they can blend, become each other, at least for a time.

Surely this is connected to Hirshfield’s long and serious study of Zen Buddhism, but we don’t need to go there. An experience too big for logic has happened, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, need classes in Zen or biographies of Hirshfield to grasp it.

At the end of the poem, there’s something like an epiphany; by definition that’s more intuitive or even mystical than it is rational. I’m probably not supposed to be able to explain it all, but I want to.

For the sake of argument, let’s say my state of mind is representative of Hirshfield’s readers. Our uneasiness and feeling off balance—is that a good agitation, discomfort, dramatic tension for a reader to be left with, or is it just too open-ended, too much absence of resolution?

The poet James Richardson has said a poem should end by landing on one foot, not two. I like that metaphor. Does it describe the final couplet in Hirshfield’s “Woodpecker . . .” or does the poem not even land on one foot? I’m not being coy; I really don’t know what I think. Yet. So I'll come back, maybe several times. And that might be a statement of praise for the poem.

The Woodpecker Keeps Returning by Jane Hirshfield : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.



Anonymous said...

This one seemed awfully obvious to me, and rather irritating. But your terrific woodpecker photo makes up for it.

Birdman said...

I'd love to get a glimpse of one. btw, I have been called a peckerhead before. Hahahahaha

Banjo52 said...

Ahiker, thanks about the photo. I shared your reaction to the poem at first, but as I wrote about it, I began to like it better. I really hope to go back to it after some weeks.

Birdman, join the club. Show me a man who hasn't been called that, and I'll show you . . . fill in the blank.

Anonymous said...

Ok, perhaps I was too hasty...insistent thoughts that we reject. Maybe the woodpecker enters through dreams.

I'll revisit.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I certainly don't mean you're wrong--only that I'm less certain than I was at first in my suspicion about this poem and a lot of Hirshfield.

We might be back to Classicism and Romanticism (and that icky way of being in the world business, arent' we), so I'll make the ramble that WAS here into a new post.

And by the way, if the woodpecker enters through the dreams, wouldn't that push the poem's thinking toward Romanticism?

helen said...

Nice photos - you must live in he southern heliosphere!

Banjo52 said...

Helen, hello. Heliosphere? I googled it, still don't get it, I'm afraid. Hope you'll expound.

Jean Spitzer said...

Love the woodpecker photos, too.

Still don't have more to say about ways of being.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, I've probably said enough about "way of being" for any 20 people. Thanks for staying tuned and for liking the woodpecker. He just drummed away and let me click away.

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