Birds and Poetry Upstream Interpretaion Home
Birds live in poetry, as themselves and as metaphors, in as astounding a profusion and diversity as in life. Sample different styles and subjects, and think about how you can use your imagination to read and write poetry to enhance your own appreciation of the world around us. Educators and interpreters may incorporate writing poems into programs specific to birds or more general language and science in a variety of ways.

Developed as a workshop session for the Chicago Wilderness Wild Things Conference, March 5, 2011

Power Point

Posted here is a pdf file of the power point presentaion from the Wild Things workshop. Below is an outline of the presentation.


Birds & Poetry, Wild Things, March 2011 (Examples are in the power point copy)

1. Listen!

A good way to start a writing session (J. Bruchac in Alphabet of the Trees)

Whitman quote

2. Why are we doing this?

All poetry is communication – who are you writing for?

Yourself? for observation and self-discovery, but may be limiting

Define an imaginary reader (Kooser, Poetry Home Repair Manual)

For teaching/interpretation

3. Poems are triggered by bits of language, glimpses of life; ideas emerge whether

intended or not (Kooser)

Essential details, no spare parts

Don’t be intimidated, but much to gain from learning form and tradition

4. Why Birds?

All the wonders of birds, all the benefits of observing, journals etc.

Many famous bird poems, Bright Wings anthology

features less well known.

The Oven Bird – Frost

There is a LOT going on here, but don’t fret about it

Meanings are clear enough, but you may find different at new reading

Beware of over analysis: “What is the poet trying to say?” as if you can’t hear

5. How we use poems

Discovery – See things as if for the first time –

What if you’d never seen or heard a cardinal?

Description and metaphor – examples in the power point from T. Gannon, J.

Kerouac, R. Hass and myself

Communicate! many audiences, many messages

6. Forms


cinquain – the “English class” form vs. the syllable count form


acrostic or alphabet poems – first letters, etc.

free verse

metered verse



shape - concrete poetry –Snyder

7. Detail – observation

The most effective poems are not likely from sweeping panorama but from close

observation of detail.

“Be one of those on whom nothing is lost,”

Henry James

7. Exercise

Each participant contributes an observation words or short phrase about the

cardinal – or your memory of a cardinal

Take as much from the audience as possible, then do a group exercise to assemble

into a rough draft poem

Keep a journal, and use it!

Some exercise ideas you might try:

Copy descriptions from books, field guides, other sources, cut them into pieces

and reassemble into a poem

Become the bird – write from the bird’s perspective, maybe as it might speak to


Make a list of everything about a bird, all the birds in this area (or any other topic)

– this is to focus on detail first, idea later

Deck: Collect your own interesting or useful words, play with rearranging them

(your own “magnetic poetry”)


Cut up, in a group, is like “deck” done quickly

List poems work as a group exercise

Circle poem, put words on a circle, draw lines to connect, write about each

connection and then assemble

Chant: “I am the owl…

I am the owl that… (hunts by night, sees well in the dark

Questions: usual W W W W W, but also How, What if, Does it, Is it true?

(See especially The Practice of Poetry for exercise ideas.)

8. Conclusion

What is the definition of a good poem?

“One I like.” – Howard Moss

Why does it matter?

Mary Oliver quote

Be Like the Bird – Victor Hugo

John M. Elliott, Education Manager, FPDCC


Behn, Robin and Chase Twichell, The Practice of Poetry, Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach, HarperCollins, 1992

Collins, Billy, Editor and David Allen Sibley, Illustrator, Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds, Columbia University Press, 2009

Higginson, William J., Jane Reichhold and Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Teach and Appreciate Haiku,  Kodansha International; 25 Anv edition, 2010

Koch, Kenneth and Kate Farrell, Sleeping on the Wing, An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing, Random House, 1981

Kooser, Ted, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, University of Nebraska Press, 2005

Mayes, Frances, The Discovery of Poetry, A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, Harcourt, 2001

McClatchy, J. D., Editor, On Wings of Song: Poems About Birds, Everyman's Library, 2000

McEwen, Christian and Mark Statman, The Alphabet of the Trees, A Guide to Nature Writing, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2000

Nelson, Dylan and Kent Nelson, editors, Birds in the Hand, Fiction and Poetry About Birds, North Point Press, 2004

Paschen, Elise and Rebecca Presson Mosby, editors, Poetry Speaks, Sourcebooks, 2001

Parini, Jay, Why Poetry Matters, Caravan Books, 2008

Timpane, John PhD with Maureen Watts, Poetry for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Inc., 2001

            About what it says it is.


Tom Gannon’s Cool Bird Poems

Huge anthology of poetry


Poetry Through the Ages.

An Expressive Journey: forms, writing, etc


Jane Reichold’s World of Poetry

Short forms, especially haiku, lots on writing


Poetry Primer

Examples and suggested writing activities for a few forms