Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Zen and the Art of Catching birds in Words

by Chris Arthur

“How many words do you need to describe a woodpigeon?”

This is the title of one of the essays in my last collection, Hummingbirds Between the Pages. Like most of what I write, it’s concerned with the extraordinary nature of the ordinary; it points to the astonishing dimensions that lie cheek-by-jowl beside the commonplace. In this particular piece, I was looking for a way of conveying on the page the incredible cargo carried by something that seems straightforward, even uninteresting: a pigeon pecking its way across my garden. Unusually, because I’m better at posing questions than answering them, the essay concluded that “I could exhaust my word-store completely without ever catching more than a fraction of what’s there.”

From the point of view of commonsense, this may sound ridiculous. Surely a woodpigeon can be described in a couple of sentences. But it’s a conclusion that becomes unsurprising – indeed inevitable – once we start to look beyond the routine simplifications we rely on and see what’s really there. Beneath the vocabulary with which ordinary diction labels, limits and dismisses things, there are chasms of time, mazes of connection, richly complex intricacies of structure and function.

One of my as-yet-unrealized literary ambitions is to take all the bird-related essays out of my eight published collections and present them together in a single volume. Such a book would include essays where gyrfalcons, waxwings, sparrowhawks, kingfishers, oystercatchers, corncrakes, woodpigeons and other species feature prominently. But despite the avian theme, it wouldn’t be an ornithology book; I doubt it would appeal to birdwatchers. Although the essays crystallize around birds and are to some extent about them, they’re more about what they point to and suggest; what an encounter with them brings to mind. The birds act as portals into mazes of meaning, time, and association beyond the mundane world of appearances. So my boyhood sighting of a flock of waxwings feeding on cotoneaster berries occasions a meditation on the complications attending memory; kingfishers become symbols that cast light on synchronicity and loss; oystercatchers prompt an investigation into the nature of a moment; a corncrake provides the vocabulary to lament environmental degradation; a blue tit becomes an unlikely icon for death and the question of when we should introduce children to the fact of our – and their – mortality.

As well as writing about them in my essays, I’m interested in trying to catch birds using a very different kind of word-trap, namely haiku. I’m not sure why I find this minimalist verse form so appealing. Perhaps it’s the contrast it offers with essays. Instead of having several thousand words to play with and enormous freedom about how to craft them, haiku demand the discipline of a precisely defined formal structure of exacting concision: three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. No more. No less. “How many words do you need to describe a woodpigeon?” As an essayist, I can use as many as I want. But for a haiku the challenge is to operate within the tight constraints of seventeen syllables.

According to Kenneth Yasuda, "the number of syllables that can be uttered in a breath makes the natural length of haiku". Traditionally, seventeen syllables in Japanese are reckoned to fill one breath. Whether the same holds true in English remains a matter of debate.  Whilst I’m open to allowing as haiku verses written in English that contravene the strict rule of three lines with 5-7-5 syllables, I prefer to impose this discipline on my own efforts. In rendering haiku from the original Japanese into English most translators – thankfully – give primacy to conveying the spirit rather than forcing it into the seventeen syllables of an alien language.

There’s something about the poised austerity of haiku, their rejection of embroidery, the economy of their few lines, their self-sufficiency and lack of anything elaborate, that makes me think of them as a peculiarly northern form – no matter how easterly the direction of their origin. And of course, this northern resonance is reinforced by Basho’s classic travel sketch The Narrow Road to the Deep North, written in a style known as haibun, which combines haiku and prose. Haiku seem to offer a way of travelling to a far north of expression. Their pared down simplicity can carry sparks of meaning far more intense than their modest scale might suggest. In a way, haiku are like a verbal equivalent of the inuksuit that dot the arctic and act as what Norman Hallendy dubs “silent messengers”. Inuksuit are signs left in the landscape by a deliberate arrangement of balanced stones. In The Idea of North, Peter Davidson calls them “minimal interventions” involving the “slight but moving rearrangement of what is already there.” They act like elemental signatures, inked in the very substance of the earth, that indicate places or perspectives of significance. They potently convey meaning from those who made them to whoever passes the same way and comes face to face with their haunting presences.

Here, then, are some of my experiments with verbal inuksuit, haiku that are minimal interventions in my encounters with birds. They use just a few shards from what’s already there to leave a marker of the moment:

Here in the garden Meeting of different worlds Robin on my hand Who could guess how blue The hedge accentor’s egg is From its dull plumage? A single jackdaw As bedraggled as I am Caught in the downpour Standing on pondweed As if walking on water A drinking goldcrest Seems only a speck Skylark, suspended so high – Huge downpour of sound Startled morning walk Almost at my feet the snipe Explodes into flight Cliff-nesting fulmars Land on a ledge, launch again Perfect manoeuvres A heron flying Prehistoric, angular Grey crick in the sky Sudden low contrail Glimpsed just above the water Dipper flies upstream Over mute black rocks A bead of sound and colour Lone oystercatcher Wagtails on the grass, Their name fits them perfectly Nothing more needed Almost out of sight Sky-buoys marking the thermals Three buzzards circling Sure sign of summer Scythe-dark shapes harvest the sky The day the swifts came Heard more than it’s seen The name alone a haiku Listen – a chiffchaff A yellowhammer Beside me as I cycle Flits along the hedge

Runs up, down, around
Treecreeper on pale ash trunk
More bark-mouse than bird
A leaf-breath movement
Eye-stripe, stump-tail, blended browns:
Wren – completely there
Snail shell confetti
Around the thrush’s anvil
Slaughter prettified
Here in the garden
Meeting of different worlds
Robin on my hand
Blackbird sentinels
Their calls at first light and dusk
Punctuating time
Who could guess how blue
The hedge accentor’s egg is
From its dull plumage?
Three ancient scarecrows
Cormorants standing on rocks
Wings held out to dry
A single jackdaw
As bedraggled as I am
Caught in the downpour
Hospital garden
Two magpies scolding loudly
The last sound you hear
Standing on pondweed
As if walking on water
A drinking goldcrest
Suddenly the swans
Dirty canal made regal
White epiphany
Seems only a speck
Skylark, suspended so high –
Huge downpour of sound
Stretched like elastic
Defies gravity then – snap! –
Kestrel’s hover drops
Startled morning walk
Almost at my feet the snipe
Explodes into flight
Unheard for so long
Its call sounds unreal at first
Cuckoo are you back?
Cliff-nesting fulmars
Land on a ledge, launch again
Perfect manoeuvres
How far it’s fallen
From high above the carpark
This red kite’s feather
A heron flying
Prehistoric, angular
Grey crick in the sky
Resplendent goldfinch
Beyond words’ dreary plumage
Its bright perfection
Sudden low contrail
Glimpsed just above the water
Dipper flies upstream
Two ravens flying
Listen! Their vibrant croaking
Unzips the silence
Over mute black rocks
A bead of sound and colour
Lone oystercatcher
Curlew’s sad piping
Tunes my sense of loneliness
This desolate place
Wagtails on the grass,
Their name fits them perfectly
Nothing more needed
Signature wing-clap
As if applauding themselves
Woodpigeons take off
Almost out of sight
Sky-buoys marking the thermals
Three buzzards circling
Look! Gannets diving
Spearing the sea with themselves
Deadly projectiles
Sure sign of summer
Scythe-dark shapes harvest the sky
The day the swifts came
In among the ducks
A solitary moorhen
Welcome difference!
Heard more than it’s seen
The name alone a haiku
Listen – a chiffchaff
Plum-soft collared dove
Hit – as if by a missile –
Death by sparrowhawk
A yellowhammer
Beside me as I cycle
Flits along the hedge

Haiku demand a flensing away of what’s unnecessary. As R.H. Blyth puts it in his influential (and highly eccentric) Haiku in Four Volumes, they “take away as many words as possible between the thing and the reader.” I’m drawn to such radical abstraction and the distillation that it seems to offer, the burning off of extraneous matter to get to essentials. In origin, haiku are infused with the Zen sensibilities of Japanese culture, particularly as these found expression in the form’s great founding figure, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). The Zen aesthetic is one I find appealing. Its emphasis on direct experience, immediacy, paying close attention to the present, getting to what’s beating at the heart of a moment, seems close kin to the qualities needed for effective essay writing. There’s surely more than a hint of such an aesthetic in Graham Good’s statement that “Anyone who can look attentively, think freely and write clearly can be an essayist; no other qualifications are needed.” To some extent essays and haiku offer different ways of doing the same thing; they sing the same song – but in different registers. Leaving their marks upon the page they act like verbal seismographs, tracing out the pulse of what moves and intrigues us.

Of course, there are many ways to try to catch birds in words, essays and haiku are by no means the only options. Some people prefer a scientific approach and opt for the kind of language and highly specialized focus that’s found in journals like Current Ornithology and Avian Biology. Others adopt a more wide-ranging perspective, like Frank Gill’s magisterial textbook, Ornithology. There are popular descriptive field guides to help with identification (such as R.S.R. Fitter & R.A. Richardson’s ever popular Pocket Guide to British Birds), and monographs that focus on single species, like Ian Newton’s The Sparrowhawk. Poets offer some memorable cameos: Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, Ted Hughes’ “Hawk Roosting”, George Macbeth’s “Owl” for example. And there are those idiosyncratic works of brilliance that combine luminous literary lyricism with a rare depth of first-hand experience and considerable ornithological knowledge – J.A. Baker’s incomparable The Peregrine, or Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, or James Macdonald Lockhart’s Raptor: A Journey Through Birds. I admire many of these approaches and often draw on them in my own efforts.

But I know that neither my essays and haiku nor any of these other modes of catching birds in words can offer more than a few fugitive glimpses of what’s there. It’s what escapes the words on the page that keeps me writing rather than any deluded sense of being able to catch it. But I like to think that, every now and then, whether in a haiku’s seventeen syllables or in the thousands of words of an essay, there’s a hint of the astonishing realities that fascinate me with their bounty of meaning. Though of course they fail to catch what’s there, I hope my words at least point in the right direction, manage to convey a sense of a few stray feathers floating in the empty space of an electrified absence, testimony to what was so astonishingly present, dense with the mysterious gravity of its being.