Jul 25, 2014

The Chipping Sparrow and Richard Wilbur's "Still, Citizen Sparrow" Again

On my walk today, I saw a new bird. He's not rare, but he was my first Chipping Sparrow. (Someone please correct me it that's incorrect). I didn't get a good look at him in real life, but I took a few shots anyway. When I got home and tinkered with the photos (cropping and sharpening), I was glad to find him fairly quickly at the fantastic Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Chipping Sparrow

It's only a small exaggeration to say I cannot compare little birds to big birds without remembering Richard Wilbur's magnificent poem, "Still, Citizen Sparrow." Today I've tweaked my comments from February of 2010. They're still long and imperfect, so read only as much as you want. But I hope you'll read or re-read the poem. Otherwise, you'll miss your chance to be one of Noah's sons, dutiful, noble and glorious, a survivor on Mt. Ararat.


Although I predict that several of Richard Wilbur's poems are canon-fodder (that is, immortal--I couldn't resist playing with Falstaff's words), I especially admire "Still, Citizen Sparrow," which offers the scavenging vulture as a hero in whose shadow mere sparrows are told to be still.

In "Still" as the opening word, there is more muscularity of language, more purposeful ambiguity and layered meaning, than I find in many entire poems. First and foremost, I hear "Still" as "Be still," an instruction to the chattering sparrows, who are that most mediocre of things, "citizens." Shut up and behold the hovering vulture as he lords (Lords?) it over trivial you with his necessary, purgative work.

However, that meaning of "Still" doesn't hold up grammatically; we'd need a semicolon or period after the command for "citizen sparrow" to be still. So the literal and grammatically sensible meaning is probably, "Even so, citizen sparrow . . . ."  It's an introduction to the more elaborate argument that follows. It's as if the sparrows, just before the poem begins, have proposed their own cuteness along with the vulture's grotesqueness, whereupon Wilbur's speaker is offering a counter-argument. "Oh yeah? Well, consider this about Mr. Vulture, whom you call ugly . . . ."

I won't continue with this kind of attention to detail or I'll never finish. But do, please, take time to admire the parts you consider to be gems. I'll be surprised if you don't find some. For example:

". . . lumber again to air / Over the rotten office . . . ." What could better capture the rhythm of the buzzard's flight than "lumber" or the brutal accuracy of its mission than "rotten office"? Remove the carcass in order to eat it: ". . . bear / The carrion ballast up . . . ."  And because the vulture's the hero who does the dirty work, he is able to "lie cruising" at the "Tip of the sky."

". . . the frightfully free // The naked-headed one . . . ."   Maybe he's "frightfully" free because what he does seems, or is, "unnatural." It's not just garbage collection; it's also something like cannibalism, yet by virtue of this shredding and munching, the hero "mocks mutability."  Death? He laughs at it. He casually eats Death and cruises on.

". . . childheart . . . bedlam hours . . . slam of his hammer . . . " All of those am sounds are verbal sledge hammers against the chirpy multitudes of sparrows, who, in their small lives, might protest,  "Oh, Buzzard, stop preparing for heroism--we sparrows can't sleep (or chatter) with the slam of your hammer going on and on and on."

And these bits of elegance speak for themselves, I think:

How high and weary it was . . .

He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew . . .

Wilbur proclaims that sparrows don't know much. They haven't "rocked" anything; they know nothing of "high and weary" labor that purifies and saves--or the soaring that goes with the work. Trash collectors and undertakers probably know a lot more than most of us. Odd as it may seem, the poem is an apotheosis of those who tidy up after messes, including corpses. And there we find the vulture glorified as the lofty, silent one, the solitary Noah among us nattering nabobs of sparrow-hood..
Turkey Vulture

As something of a skeptic about heroes, I don't know how much I agree with Wilbur's argument, but I admire its creative logic and presentation, the power of its imperatives ("Do this; do that"), the poem's passion bucking against the constraints of its rhymed and metered formality, just as its argument bucks against the expectations of most of us, who might like a sparrow in the back yard rather than a buzzard, never mind that the sparrow makes messes while the buzzard cleans them up, flies away and soars again, looking for more. He's big and other, not at all a citizen like us.


Black Vulture


Ken Mac said...

That lil bird is giving you the beady eye..

Banjo52 said...

Ken, that's OK with me, of course. He stayed put for almost a minute!

RuneE said...

For what it's worth, I agree with you on the grammar. So I read the three first stanzas as s tribute to the vulture as one of Natures great recirculators.

The last three I read allegorically as I can't take the existence of Noah and all that literally. Then one could read it as a tribute to ecology.

Oh, well ...

Banjo52 said...

RuneE, what an interesting take--a way to sidestep the prison that mythology can be if we allow it. I'm fine with your point except for one thing: it removes the human beauty or nobility or whatever it is that's involved in being Noah or Noah's sons, whether they're historical figures or merely characters in a fairy tale.

And that's OK outside the poem, of course; human nobility and heroism are concepts that are surely open to skepticism.

But when the poem specifies Noah and his lonely building of the ark and journey to Ararat, watching his world disappear into a watery grave underneath him as he goes, I think we have to say that the poem wants us to see human endeavor and heroism as one of its subjects, maybe the central theme.

I don't think that has to be the literal Noah, but I do think we have to say poem is about human exceptionalism. We're free to disagree with the poem's philosophical/political position, but we need to see that it exists.

I really appreciate your careful, thoughtful response. As humans continue to overpopulate the planet faster than we can kill ourselves off in asinine wars, it's difficult indeed to see us as much more than pollutants, never mind noble heroes. So I think it's intelligent and reasonable to see vultures and all of nature taking care of ecology as well as possible with us around, trying to foil them at every turn.

Julie Brown said...

I think it is interesting to read your discussions with others.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I read the poem first. Glad you explained it. I was lost until the end where these words stood out.

" To Ararat, all men are Noah's sons."

so true about the undertaker and garbage handler... and I'd add the one who does the 'euthanizing' at animal shelters to the list.

Anonymous said...

I remember this...

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, you three. Good to hear there's still something worthwhile here.

PA, good point abut euthanizing. I'm sure there are other kinds of under-appreciated work that deserve mentioning too.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

In the early ots, we did the public art element for the newly built main waste management facility for LA. On weekends when all were off work, there was one lone fellow there who worked the weekend shift. Someone that I took a liking to. I referred to him as 'Dead Animal Pick Up Guy' because that's what he did. And I remember him returning from a run looking disturbed. He had gone to a single middle aged woman's mobile home. It had burnt to the ground and she had lost everything including her dogs. Kind of like the character in the Green Mile...where you have to suck / eat / digest the heavy weight of the worlds sorrows.

Banjo52 said...

What a nice, sad little story and portrait. Thanks! I wonder if others will send this kind of unsung, dirty-work hero . . .

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