John Elder: On "A Canticle to the Waterbirds"

Everson's canticle to the birds is an exhortation for them, in their turn, to lift their songs to God. Theirs becomes, in this way, a service of mediation: they are capable of a directness of response to the world beyond the human. The waterbirds' life is in the holy present, across which there falls no shadow of anxiety or regret; they "assume each instant as warrant sufficient of His final seal." Because they are determined in their songs--"the strict articulations of your throats"--as in the rest of their behavior, they achieve a fullness of harmony with that divinity immanent in the natural order: "But mostly it is your way you bear existence wholly within the context of His utter will and are untroubled." In some ways Everson's cosmic design here is parallel to Dante's, since the souls in the Paradiso are also blessed precisely because of the perfect accord of their wills with God's: "E'n la sua volontade e nostra pace," "In His will is our peace."

Dante is unable to remain in the luminous order of heaven for long, but must descend to earth to articulate his experience as best he can within the limits of mortal language. Everson, in a similar way, Must pitch his song to harmony across the chasm of his own humanity: "You keep seclusion where no man may go, giving Him praise; /.... / And where His true communion-keepers are not enabled to enter." As the second of these quoted lines makes clear, Everson's parallel with Dante is finally accomplished through an inversion. The birds are closer to God and the earth because lower in a scale of free-will, self-consciousness, and, in accord with orthodox theology, spiritual authority--"our lessers in the rich hegemony of Being." Though he sings to the waterbirds, Everson is not able to talk to them in the Franciscan spirit of fraternal love: they are both purer in their presentness and, by another measure, less conscious than man, "Outside the mulled incertitude of our forensic choices."

Its Catholic vocabulary notwithstanding, Everson's poetry resembles that of Robinson Jeffers, who struggles to free himself from humanity, or even from organic life, in his desire for a granite oneness with reality. Like Jeffers, Everson is thus involved in a paradoxical affirmation, couched in terms that question the validity of the affirming self. Such a stance results from passionate rejection of traditional anthropocentrism, with its disregard for the worth of the nonhuman world, and for the nonintellectual dimensions of human reality as well. In an essay entitled "The Giant Hand," from Everson's book Fragments of an Older Fury, about Robinson Jeffers, he defends the poetic principle that

. . . the initiating locus of energy (the archetype) must determine the configuration of its effect. To maintain otherwise is to betray the fact that the actual motive in play is not to register the naked truth of the subject, its essence, its truth of being, but is rather to situate it in our mental world, a secondary thing, locate it in some power-complex in the ego (Tradition, Politics, Religion, etc.), imposing definition from without. While all art is admittedly born of the tension between these two psychological polarities, the creative writer inevitably takes the plunge into the depths of the former....

Everson's values lead him to reject both conventionally based judgments of proper poetic form and the brutal subordinations of warfare and technology. Such impositions are alike in taking the immediate experience of the physical world to be "a secondary thing." The waterbirds of this canticle, by virtue of being "lesser," become primary in their value and contribution . . . .

In its own terms, "The Canticle to the Waterbirds" also achieves a primary and present quality beyond the endless relativism of selfconsciousness. Because he values the birds' nonhuman presentness, the poet is closely attentive to their particular lives and cries. This is a catalog of birds, like the catalogs filling the pages of Leaves of Grass. Especially in Everson's first two stanzas and in the last one, there is an ecstatic listing that identifies the eye and ear with all of the specifics of a world of creatures. Delight in the dimensions of creation thus makes the poem's body conform to the body of the world, in the same way that the long breaths of the verse echo the cries of wheeling, mixed flocks of birds at surf's edge: "Curlews, stilts and scissortails, beachcomber gulls." Although all human knowledge occurs in the waves and undertow of consciousness, the poet can go beyond the idea of waterbirds, as he uses human language to sing their songs with them.

There is a great tradition of birdsong in American poetry. Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" bursts at its crises into the whistling, slightly varied reiteration of the mockingbird calling for his mate:

 

Hither my love!

Here I am! here!

With this just-sustain'd note I announce myself to you,

This gentle call is for you my love, for you.

 

And Denise Levertov's piercing hymn to the white-throated sparrow, "Claritas," as it strives to attain the ringing purity of the bird's voice, concludes with imitation:

 

Sun

light.

        Light

light light light

 

This is the grace conveyed in the cries of Everson's waterbirds: their "direct astuteness" to the natural order gives the poet a worthy model for imitation. The poet's eye and ear, fixed on the birds, practice obedience to the world.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title John Elder: On "A Canticle to the Waterbirds" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Elder Criticism Target William Everson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature
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