Apr 25, 2014

FROST'S DIMINISHED OVENBIRD: THE SMALL AND BROWN, THE FALLING


Golden-Crowned Kinglet, I think


Early in my walk two weeks ago, before I came upon the garter snake, a sparrow-sized bird fluttered from a branch down to the brown leaves from the last few autumns. A second or two later, my brain registered that I'd seen some yellow on him. “Probably just another gold finch,” I thought, as I kicked myself for being jaded.

So I paused long enough for him to reappear, and indeed there was some yellow in his crown, yet he looked nothing like a gold finch. I'm pretty sure it was the golden crowned kinglet, a somewhat rare gift I came upon, near the same place about a year ago.

He flew off, and I figured the episode and my curiosity were finished. I came across the snake, got some pictures of him, plus a pair of blue jays, and had a pleasant walk.

Robin (American Thrush)
But when I got home, the bird with a yellow crown reappeared in my mind, and I got a little obsessive. I’ve had occasional luck with googling from faraway clues, so on a lark (terrible pun intended) I typed “golden-crowned sparrow,” and there he was—at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, of course. Unfortunately, he lives only on the west coast.

That could have been the end of the adventure, but the “Similar Species” included not only my guy, but also one of the warblers, called the ovenbird, which is the title critter of a Robert Frost poem. 

I figured I might as well reread Frost’s sonnet—it had been a long time, and some credible people have loved the poem. I liked it all right, especially the final line, which gives us calmly wonderful, troubling words and a big question:  what shall we “make of a diminished thing”?--such as a small, brown and mortal bird in a big forest where everything falls down sooner or later.

I love underdogs and other “diminished things.”  I probably think it’s immoral not to. Nobody needs more New York Yankees except for having a common enemy.

However, I also googled the big song of the little brown ovenbird; it’s anything but diminished. And he does have the minor glory of some yellow on his crown, which is more than most sparrows and wrens can say.

Song Sparrow (I think)
Then I struggled with some of Frost’s phrasing. His ovenbird says, “Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten,” which strikes me as a convoluted way to convey that spring has ten times more flowers than summer does. 

And what about this?

                            . . . the early petal fall is past
                When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
                On sunny days a moment overcast;
                And comes that other fall we name the fall.

    We can figure this out, but how important is it for the ovenbird to observe that rain brings down blossoms? Or the fact that birds and humans can deem rain odd if it happens on days that are mostly sunny, but yield to a “moment” of overcast skies and rain. True, that kind of rain is a bit rare, perhaps even sudden, unfair or precipitous, and Frost wants us to hear that the bird perceives this.

   Frost’s oven bird also understands that there are two or three falls:  the petals fluttering to the ground and “that other fall we name the fall.”  I’ll take Frost at his word that our less formal expression for autumn, “the fall,” comes from humans as we watch leaves fall—and perhaps life falling into winter death. But he might be making a rather big deal of this fairly old notion. Also, of course there's there's that third Fall, the one in Eden. How can I not hear the poem hinting at that? 
 
    But these concepts go at least as far back as Shakespeare, so I’m puzzled that Frost struggles to repeat them in a syntax I find somewhat labored. I wonder if he's sacrificed some clarity and perspective to the demands of the sonnet form (also, this is an unusual rhyme scheme for a Petrarchan sonnet—is that another result of a forced effort?).

    Yet, in spite of all my reservations, Frost saves the poem for me in two places. First, his oven bird notices “the highway dust is over all.” It's a small thing, but it adds to the poem's modernity, and it's slightly more original and less grand that the symbolic “fall” and falling business. 

    But the crowning blow, the home run, is Frost’s final line. Even if I wonder about its accuracy when applied to the ovenbird, I cannot fail to love the little bird’s phrasing in his question about himself and all of us, as he asks “what to make of a diminished thing.” 

   We all have been or will be diminished by nature’s seasons as well as the seasons in our individual lives, and I’ll bet every one of us has wondered, more than we admit, what to make of all that falling—spring petals, autumn leaves, little brown birds, ourselves.



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12 comments:

Julie Brown said...

You changed the caption for the golden-crowned kinglet. That is a correct ID. Interesting to see one on the ground. They usually prefer to be in conifers.

Banjo52 said...

Julie, thanks! Last November 1 and Nov. 27, I posted stuff related to the kinglets. The photos I got then portrayed both golden-crowned and ruby-crowned as fairly plump guys, and both kinglets were spotted in small trees or large bushes. I think that's why I was reluctant to lable this skinny guy a kinglet. But in fact, he could be the same one I saw last fall--maybe 200 yards away from that spot. I realize the fallibility of human observers, and I know birds do odd things (to the human eye) with their feathers, but I also wonder if this guy really is skinny and if that's because of the severe winter.

Here's one of the Nov. 2013 posts in case anyone is becoming addicted to kinglets:

http://banjo52.blogspot.com/2013/11/an-ee-cummings-thanksgiving-for.html

anne said...

yes, yes, yes.

altadenahiker said...

It was a really early poem, right? There is a singer everyone has heard/
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird
And then you think which sent him in search of the rhyme -- bird, or heard. Well, given the subject, bird, I suppose. And then skipping around the alphabet -- Curd? no. Gird? probably not. Heard? Ah, possibilities, there.

He could have gone to the T's:
I know a singer who leaves a turd

Stickup Artist said...

If you take it as a whole and don't pick it apart, it is sweet, and sweetly sad, which is the saddest kind of sad because it's always there, every day...

Banjo52 said...

AH, thou art frisky! I found this: "'The Oven Bird' was published in Mountain Interval (1916), Frost's third collection of poems,

Stickup, Well said. There are certainly different kinds of sadness.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

If you had to pick the biggest cliche in amateur poetry, would it birds? it takes a delicate hand to be able to get away with a bird poem - such loaded symbols

Banjo52 said...

PA, maybe--birds are risky for sure. But also sunset, sunrise, trees, dark and light, and more if I think longer on it. I'm still surprised when poets still use those images with their traditional meanings (baggage?), but they do, and once in a while they get away with it, IMHO. Also, at least Frost is being a bit specific about the ovenbird, which not everyone has heard--and the bird is not bob bob bobbing along.

Ken Mac said...

Nobody needs another NY Yankees? !! Watch it pal!

I agree, we always root for the underdog cause we all identify..

Banjo52 said...

Ken, bingo! Have you been in NYC long enough to be a serious Yankee fan? For me, it really is all about the dynasty biz. I'm fine with the Giants, often root for them (which makes all the difference--just ask Eli).

Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

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Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Jerry!

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