Birds: what prose cannot say

Posted on August 20th, 2009 – 9:10 AM
By Jim Williams

My appreciation of poetry pretty much stalled early in grade school. I favor rhyming verses. And so, when given the book “Bright Wings, An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds,” I approached this review with hesitation. In its favor was its editor, Billy Collins, who doesn’t rhyme often if at all, but whose wit and world view are charming. Also a plus were illustrations by the famed David Sibley, he of the best-selling bird identification books. In his introduction, Collins gives an example of the fresh look poetry can offer of the world. He uses a poem about swans by Ruth Schwartz. It is a fine poem, although it doesn’t rhyme. It does, however, have insight and a keen, offbeat sense of humor. Read this one aloud. The opening poem in the collection, by Stephen Vincent Benet, does rhyme, much to my pleasure, and is also fun to read aloud. Following that is an intelligent assembly of poems that takes us places were prose cannot go. Here is strong evidence that everything important about birds cannot be put in identification books or scientific papers. Sibley accompanies his black-and-white wash paintings with concise and sometimes eclectic comments on the species in this captivating poetic flock. (Columbia University Press, 224 pages, 54 illustrations, hardcover, $22.95.)

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