On the Mockingbird’s Song
Curled into the recliner in the air-conditioned house, with the inside front door open and sunlight pouring through the warm glass panes, I am listening to the mockingbird pour out a concert in the densely leaved dogwood just beyond the porch, call after call rising into the sultry summer air. These are moments I envy Annie Dillard; she would know all the songs of his repertoire: now he’s mocking a finch, a sparrow, a bluebird…. Me, I haven’t a clue. I just enjoy.
Thinking of Dillard’s seemingly all-encompassing knowledge of nature, I find myself wondering how knowledge increases or enhances enjoyment. My enjoyment of the mockingbird is intense; could it be deeper if more informed? After all, I have never given much study to science beyond the minimum school requirements, which baffled more than they taught me; neither am I by temperament a keen observer of nature. My horticulturist father tried his best, but I could never seem to remember the difference between elms and oaks or Bermuda and bluegrass. In junior high, after my family moved from town to country, I determined for a time to mend this defect. I would go outside, find a likely spot under a tree, and try to force myself to observe—leaves, grass, rocks, sky…. I never lasted more than a couple of minutes before my mind abandoned sight and wandered into its more natural realm of idea; I would sigh with frustration at yet another failure, and go back inside to read.
After all, from before I entered kindergarten at age four, it was the world of words, not nature, that enamored me. I fell into story in my parents’ laps and never recovered. When I learned to write my name, I promptly engraved it in the arm of my mother’s wooden rocking chair. Later, she claimed it as the first act of a budding writer; at the time, it earned me a painful and lasting lesson in the wisdom of using paper for my forays into this new world captivating my heart.
Because I love words, because my mind works most easily through the verbal instead of the visual or kinesthetic, I learned to read early and well, and readily gained the knowledge to become a teacher of literature, desiring to guide my students into the joys I have myself experienced; every moment of that study has made me love my subject more. And so, as I listen to and enjoy a mockingbird on a mid-summer afternoon and wonder about the relation of enjoyment to knowledge, my thoughts turn automatically to literature, seeking an analogy.
I know that when I understand how a poem works, I take more delight in it. As I read carefully through a poem like Sharon Olds’ “The Victims,” narrated by an adult looking back on her parents’ divorce, I’m moved (more than I might be by an article on the same subject) because of its subtlety, the way meaning and form are essentially bound together to lead the reader to question common and accepted perceptions of life and marriage, love and hate. Olds pushes us to wonder if the hatred of the speaker’s mother for her husband is justified, not by direct assertion of this possibility but rather by literary techniques that begin to make us wonder whether the family’s opening glee over the divorce is excessive: the free verse ragged lines mirroring the speaker’s changing emotions and perceptions; the imagery that helps us see the father in different ways, such as the “black carcasses” of his suits hanging in the closet, the “suits of compressed silt” worn by the bums who make her wonder if this is what he has become; and especially the repetition, with evolving meanings, of the word “take”—the mother “takes it” from her husband, then everything is “taken away” from him, then the speaker’s realization that the bums, including perhaps her father, themselves “took it and took it” but had also “given it all away.” What has been taken and given, and by whom, we must ask, and not be satisfied with a glib or superficial answer.
When a student reads this same poem and remarks casually about the abusive husband and father getting what he deserves, I am taken aback. Where in the text do you find this, I ask; the only kind of wrongdoing even hinted at on the father’s part is the possibility of neglecting his family for his work. “Nobody would ever hate someone else that much if there weren’t serious cause for it,” comes the self-assured and absolute answer. I would like to believe that youth accounts for this response, but I’m not always sure. What I want is for them to read closely enough that they begin to see the work’s reality, its whole, and allow it to teach them to question their comfortable presuppositions: can hate exist without being caused by some evil in the one hated? (Of course it can: the only perfect Man who ever lived was crucified.) Could, then, my hatred be without cause, or even be directed against those who don’t deserve it? Could my claim for justice hide my real desire for revenge; could punishment be disproportionate to cause? Is there more to any story than I know, even when I’m a character in it?
They read in this superficial way with regularity, noticing only the details that confirm a personal prejudice or unrealistic hope: the father in “My Papa’s Waltz” is also abusive, obviously—he has “whiskey on his breath,” and the words “death” and “scrape” and “beat” appear in the poem, never mind their context; the girl in “Hills like White Elephants” smiles and says “I’m fine” several times at the end, so of course she’s leaving the manipulative jerk and keeping the baby, never mind all the evidence that makes those words much more likely to be a capitulation…. And in these readings they miss, in the one case, being delighted by the lilting rhythm of a playful romp and the image of a father and son delighting in each other’s love; and in the other the opportunity to learn empathy for the desperate among us who need security and don’t know where to find it, who are misled, even abused, by those who should care for them but stay because they have no place else to turn.
And there’s always the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—that nice old Christian lady who witnesses to the hardened murderer by telling him to pray to Jesus…. But in missing the way O’Connor reveals the grandmother’s lack of understanding of the gospel and the more accurate and profound theology of the Misfit, as well as how and why they both fall short of the mark—the grandmother through complacent self-absorption, the Misfit through self-willed rebellion—they miss the wonder of the grandmother’s epiphany and conversion. They miss that awe-filled moment when she finds herself at last on the same level as the Misfit, denying Christ in her despair as he has done in his pride—and thus realizes her kinship with him; they miss the significance of the likely first act of pure unselfish love in her life, reaching out in compassion to touch a man she had despised because of his class and feared because of his threat to her life and only hers. Instead, in the grandmother they see themselves and their own faith as they wish it to be—strong and vital—not as it is—superficial and self-serving—and they miss the opportunity for their own epiphany and redemption.
When students are ignorant in this way, reading themselves instead of the text, I am grieved, because they are not delighting in the literature: they have not heard it. Rather, they are delighting in themselves and what they think they already know. But how do we bring these students—who have been reading for a dozen and more years but cannot understand writing of any complexity, much less literary texts—to the point where they can comprehend and respond to the text itself and not to the self read into it?
Poets say it is destructive to “take apart” a poem and, as Billy Collins writes in “Introduction to Poetry,” try to “torture a confession from it” in order to “find out what it really means”; the poem, they rightly assert, is greater than the sum of its parts and must be experienced as a whole, without necessarily attempting to encapsulate it within a “theme” or “message.” This is true, to a point (and for all literature)—but these are experienced readers who object to such close analysis, readers who have internalized an analytical method (perhaps so fully they do not even realize they use it) and can thus confidently enjoy a poem or story, knowing their response is to the words they read, not that which they read into the words. This is not true of most of my students; if I leave them to “experience” a poem or story, they will instead experience themselves. They are like the narrator of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote, who elects himself the official commentator on a poem written by his late friend, John Shade. Alan Jacobs, in A Theology of Reading, explains that Kinbote is not a proper critic because he only cares about the poem if he can force it to appear to be about himself; he “could scarcely be called a reader, either,” Jacobs writes, “since he loves not Shade’s work itself but, rather, the mirror of himself into which he has [tried to] transform the poem.”
I don’t myself recall learning to read closely and hear the text itself. I was always the fastest reader in my class, with the highest comprehension scores (for which I paid dearly on the playground, as I was the exact opposite at sports and games). I know that my parents read to me and talked about what we read, and when I was older we were always talking about the wide variety of materials we were always reading. I recall certain teachers, especially in high school, such as Miss Angell, who made us memorize long poems (“one could do worse than be a swinger of birches”) and who read Winnie-the-Pooh to us every Friday; Mr. Denny, who assigned us to assemble a dramatic reading of our favorite poems and taught us to understand Kabuki theatre; Mrs. Mott, who demanded accuracy and precision in everything that we wrote about the literature we read….
And that, I believe, is the theme of all the excellent teaching I’ve benefited from over the years—the demand to look, to see, to record accurately, to be precise: to attend.
I know that along the way I was taught a fair amount of technical information about literature—meter and rhyme schemes, poetic forms, story arcs, kinds of narration, symbols, many forms of figurative language…but, while I in turn teach some of this to my students, I never could see it as especially valuable in and of itself and have never made it a major exam component. It seems to me now, on reflection, that my intuition has been right in this; its greatest value is rather as a means to an end—it helps the reader with the task of attending, and it gives a common vocabulary to discuss what we see.
It’s true that names can themselves help us to see, but I’ve never found that my inability to recall the difference between trochees and spondees keeps me from attending to, hearing, and understanding the value of meter in a poem. The meter, of course, is vital to the reading, which is vital to realizing the poem’s essence…but once one grasps the concept of meter, the names of specific ones aren’t necessary in order to hear and follow it. What’s important, in other words, is that we grasp the principle of stressed and unstressed syllables and how to hear and read them. The specific forms and names are important to scholars who love poetics, but one needn’t love poetics to love poetry. So I insist that my students learn well the most basic meter—iambic pentameter; at least one form—the sonnet; and some basic vocabulary—meter, rhythm, rhyme, stanza, imagery, metaphor. They learn these for a shared vocabulary and, more importantly, in order to understand that these principles exist and are important. And then I read aloud, poem after poem, modeling for them the sounds until they begin to hear, and, I hope, develop the ability to read for themselves.
And we talk about words—what, for example, are all the possible meanings and images and ideas they can think of when they hear, in MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” the phrase “globed fruit” (apple, peach, plum; fresh; juicy; sweet; smooth, fuzzy; and as far as I can get them to take it) and what do these have to do with poetry; how is a poem like a globed fruit? In Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” what are “worms” (caterpillars destroy roses) and how can they “fly by night in the howling storm”? (Oh, Smaug was the “Great Worm”—dragons: dragons destroy fair maidens!) What kinds of storms are there, both literal and metaphorical; how do the other words in the poem (“dark secret love,” “crimson bed”) suggest this storm is one of lust that destroys genuine love?
Basic principles of meter and form, imagery and figurative language, an understanding of diction, contextualizing the parts within the whole: these are necessary to understand and enjoy poetry. For those so inclined, there are layers more of specific knowledge, but for understanding and enjoyment these are not necessary. The basic principles are sufficient; but they must be taught, and the student must attend—to the instruction and then to the text.
The same is true, of course, for all kinds of texts, literary and otherwise. In composition classes we read articles and editorials and essays, and I teach the same way—not meter and rhyme schemes, but diction and context, structure and logic. As with poetry, I teach basic principles and a few specifics, but we focus on seeing the text, attending to the words and how they work together to create meaning—not the meaning of the reader but the meaning of the text. We go through text after text in class as I model the reading, then direct them through questioning, challenge them to apply on their own. If they forget terms like syllogism and enthymeme, post hoc and ad hominem, it will be immaterial if they have learned to attend to the words on the page.
Knowledge, of course, is essential to understanding, which must precede real enjoyment of texts created by others—but not, perhaps, the specificity of knowledge of a scholar, bringing me back to the question that struck me that summer afternoon: Would knowing an abundance of scientific details and analysis help me to more properly and fully enjoy the mockingbird? The simple fact that he sits in the dogwood delighting in his concert delights me. The variety of his calls, repeated again and again, sometimes in the same order, sometimes mixed, delights me. His slow sail to the lawn when he tires of singing, white flashing from wings and tail until he settles them after his glide, delights me. The fact that Mary Oliver taught a mockingbird to sing Mahler delights me.
The memory of the night I stood in my youngest son’s room listening to his sleeping breaths while the mockingbird sang a benediction in the moonlight delights me profoundly.
I don’t recall what woke me that night, perhaps a sigh or a stirring from the bedroom next to ours, heard in my sleep and bringing me to check that all was well. The October night was cool; he had, as always, kicked off the covers, and a light touch confirmed chilled limbs. I pulled the blanket over his shoulders, tucking it under the mattress in the vain hope that it would hold its place against his next unconscious stretch and resettle. I stood awhile watching him sleep, this youngest child, this innocent.
While he was still at this age where he exulted in discovery—and everything waited to be discovered—the world was drawing him out of himself: the baby deer could not be touched but he could sit near it with his sister and look, in hushed awe, as someone snapped the picture that now sits on my bookcase; the baby chicks would run from him if he shouted but come close enough to be touched if he spoke softly. Innocent of reading, he learned the written word through interpreters who understood how to bring it alive in order to draw him from himself into a wider world. And as yet, that world held only minor fears and failures, and so he slept with peaceful slow breaths.
The window behind the curtain shone, and I crossed the room to pull it back and look out over the yard and the neighbor’s harvest-ready wheat, moonlight bathing the scene. As I stood gazing, all before me silent and golden, a bird began to sing. For a moment I wondered what bird sings at midnight in October—and then I realized I was hearing a chorus of birds all in one…of course a mockingbird. Perched in the old elm by the mailbox at the end of the long driveway, he sang his heart out to the light of the moon and to the sleeping fields, and to a mother whose heart was strangely moved in a quiet hope for the triumph of beauty in a broken world. He must have sung for an hour as I stood at the window, the rhythm of the child’s breathing keeping time with his wild and irrational and lovely concert.
If I could take a count of the mockingbird’s many calls, identifying each, attending to their pattern and noting when it changes, if I knew all about his mating and nesting and child-rearing habits, his longevity, his predations and his predators, could I have taken more delight than I did in his song that night? Would knowledge of such facts broaden and deepen my delight, strengthen my joy?
A mockingbird too is a text. MacLeish tells us that a poem is “wordless / as the flight of birds.” The birds do not tell us what they mean—and yet they do mean. They speak, in their silence, of changing seasons and the freedom of soaring flight, of the joys and the glories of communion and pattern, of simple response to their created being. But, as with a literary text, we need basic knowledge and the discipline to attend to what we see. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the psalmist tells us; “His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made,” St. Paul declares in Romans; Job reminds his friends that “the birds of the air will tell you […] that the hand of the LORD has done this.”
And, seeing it this way, I realize that I am not as ignorant of nature as I had thought. It’s true that I am not naturally inclined to see the physical world—but it is equally true that my father’s love for that world and his patient unfolding of it to me took effect. Although I did not attend as closely as I should have, the older I became the more I listened—not because I loved plants but because I loved my daddy and wanted to honor his love. And while I still don’t do well with the names of many things, I know more than I realize, and I see the distinct loveliness of various kinds of trees, grasses, flowers, shrubs.
Marrying a horticulturist (yes, God has a sense of humor) has helped me further desire to actually see the natural world, and, as I would never have thought on those futile afternoons in the eastern Kansas woods, my love for words has brought me better vision as well. As I have attended to Dillard, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, I have found myself longing to see as they do—and slowly, slowly, beginning to give the time and effort such study requires.
This chapter in nature’s book, this mockingbird, teaches me by his simple existence. I observe him, delight in him, and learn from him. I love his demure grey suit with its white accents, and how he shows them off just a bit, just a shake of the wings and tail, before settling lightly into the grey-green lawn. Not quite seeming to care whether we notice or not, he goes about his business—nesting, feeding, warning off the occasional intruder. His insouciant demeanor contrasts with his vividly persistent song, a song impossible to miss whether at mid-afternoon in a Tennessee summer or at midnight in a Kansas October.
His persistence may be noble, or a mere annoyance, or make one wild with impotent rage: just stop already, please. Does he think his audience is deaf, his duty to be sure they hear? No accumulation of facts can tell us why the mockingbird sings the way he does, or why he sings at all. Does he simply delight in the sound for its own sake, not caring if anyone hears or responds? Is it simply his essence, his inscape, to sing praises for the sheer joy of being alive and a mockingbird? No one commands the mockingbird to witness, but witness he does, integrating the calls of other birds into his own unique chorus of adoration.
We must learn to be analytical, to recognize the parts of things and how they fit together in order to understand texts of any kind, man-made or God-created. But above all, we must attend to any text itself, not reading our own selves into it, if its purpose—to take us out of the self and its limited world, to challenge us to grow and change and act—is to be served. Just as I can read Sharon Olds’ poem as a statement of revenge against an abusive parent, I can see the mockingbird as a mere noisy pest without even the saving grace of his own music. But then I am locked into my own prejudices and emotions, refusing to be challenged, much less changed.
In the beginning was the Word—and God gave us both the written Word and the Word incarnate. These not only hold out to us redemption but they are an important touchstone for understanding God’s other words to us—the words of nature and of language. To all these words we must attend, with humility and love, if we wish to know the Truth which can set us free from the narrow prison of the self. Nature and language cannot of course be sufficient for complete understanding of Truth, partaking of the consequences of the Fall as they do. Nature holds now the decay of death, and the pristine perfection of Eden is a dream, but when we attend to nature in humility and love, its beauty still points us to its Creator and to praise. And far too often we use language in our fallen way to offer broken and false images (though even in these we hear the broken world crying out for redemption, for the message of hope with which He has entrusted us); yet it can be used rightly, too, in humility and in love, to draw us to its Creator and to praise.
“What are we here for?” Dillard asks; and answers her own question: “Propter chorum, the monks say: for the sake of the choir”—the choir, human or mockingbird, who draws us to and leads us in praise, who blesses us in its benediction of hope.
And so the mockingbird sings on, and draws me inexorably from my recliner in the air-conditioned house of a Tennessee summer to an October Kansas window, delighting in the sleeping breaths of my youngest child, hoping for us all, with each melody, with each breath, for beauty beyond the moonlit landscape.