Saturday, February 02, 2013

`The Usefulness Whose Result is Survival'

The birds, at least the vocal ones, are returning to Houston. One morning before dawn I heard a male cardinal calling, a block north of our street, far enough away to mute its brassiness and lend it a plaintive sound. On campus, in one of the water oaks, I heard a robin noodling its compact, Ornette Coleman-like song in a minor key. On a walk to a far corner of the university I heard a brief, high-pitched, complex song coming from a grassy field near the Texas Medical Center. It buzzed like an insect in high summer. On a fence I saw a dab of bleached brown, a savannah sparrow, a bird so small and drab you might mistake him for a dead leaf. The Scottish poet Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) starts “Sparrow” (Collected Poems, 1990) with ironic bluntness: “He's no artist.” “Ironic” because the rest of the poem says otherwise, though the sparrow is no nightingale: 

“He carries what learning he has
lightly -- it is, in fact, based only
on the usefulness whose result
is survival. A proletarian bird.
No scholar.” 

No aesthete, he’s more like Orwell – bluff, unambiguous, purposeful.

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