Poetry Classroom: Nuthatch

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet and professor Julie L. Moore. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Julie and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

White-breasted Nuthatch

I’m into ornithology now—
it’s poetry’s fault the birds

zoom into this line
or that, and I don’t want to say,

generically, bird—no anonymous
fowls for me, no!—I want to write

Yellow-rumped Warbler or Scarlet Tanager
or here, this one, White-breasted Nuthatch.

Ah, yes, this one can skip along the trunk of a tree
like a stone across a pond. And it can hammer

at seeds and peck for bugs while its hind nail
digs into bark, balancing

its plush body on the primal edge
of wonder.

Photo by David-Mitchell, via Flickr. Poem by Julie L. Moore, author of Particular Scandals


Discussion Questions:

1. The poet says it is poetry’s fault she is into ornithology. Has poetry gotten you “into” anything you never expected? What can you blame on poetry?

2. How does the use of specific names affect a poem? This poem? Would you be just as happy if the poet had simply used “birds”?

3. The poet claims not wanting anonymity. How does anonymity affect relationship? If poems avoid anonymity, is there a way, then, in which they could change the nature of any given relationship?

Browse poets and poems
Browse more bird poems
Browse more poems about poetry


  1. says

    You’ve written a great poem that shows instead of tells.

    One of the things I love about poetry is that it’s specific. Recently, I brought a poem to my group with lots of wildflowers, and there was one I couldn’t name. Someone else knew it, thank goodness. Specificity locates us. And when you’re specifically not specific–just “bird” or “flower”–that can say something, too.

  2. says

    Megan, thanks so much for your insightful comment. I really appreciate your thoughts on poetry’s specificity. My new book Particular Scandals focuses on that very thing–it’s in the particulars that we’re all steeped, as Annie Dillard notes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. What other world do we know other than the very specific one in which we live and breathe and have our being?

  3. says

    Poetry has gotten me into a number of things I never expected! Probably the most surprising to me is the way I see and experience everything… with a keener sensory awareness and a descriptive language to go along with it. Related to that is when I hear language I am often uncontrollably thinking of it as “poetic” (or not). It’s been very freeing for me to be able to say things just the way I want, too, which has not always been the case… and to say/write them without apology, although I still have to resist the urge to make excuses for myself. I have also started to dream poems.

    I’m glad you said “White Breasted Nuthatch”! It has it’s own rhythm, and it calls a particular bird to mind… and if I didn’t happen to know what one was I would definitely look it up, which is expansive as well. I’ve learned a lot through looking up the words I find in poems.

  4. says

    I’m working on a collection of bird poetry right now, so this speaks to me. I know more about the specificities of so many types of birds than I ever could have guessed when I started on this. But what I keep coming back to is that it’s working for me as a psychological concept, an entry into the human mind. And what human being wants to be generalized or marginalized? We nitpick the details of our lives, and much of it is chaff. But the seeds feed us. Nourish. And so with the specificity of any single poem. The detail that surprises, that educates, that moves, that wrenches. That sets a heart into something like flight.

  5. Larry Bole says

    The names of things often have an inherent musicality. It would be wonderful to know what names Adam (as far as I am concerned, the first poet, or proto-poet, at least in Judeo-Christian mythology) gave to “all the birds of the sky.”

    To use the name of a specific bird in a poem adds texture to the poem.

    And yet some poems do better, in context, with the general word ‘bird’. Two popped into my head when I read this post: “A Dawn in a tree of birds,” by Kenneth Rexroth, and “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” by Robert Frost.

    Rexroth’s poem is short, so I will quote it here in its entirety:

    A dawn in a tree of birds.
    And then another.

    –Kenneth Rexroth

    In my opinion, specifying a particular bird, or birds, in either poem would lessen each poem’s impact.

    One poetry genre that emphasizes specificity in naming names is Japanese haiku, and yet Japanese haiku poets will occasionally generalize. One example is a haiku by Buson:

    kotori kuru oto ureshisa yo itabi sashi

    The sound of small birds
    On the pent-roof,–
    What a pleasure!

    –Buson, trans. R. H. Blyth

    I love listening
    to the small birds
    up in the eaves

    –Buson, trans. W. S. Merwin

    ‘Kotori’ (small birds) is a ‘kigo’ (seasonal word/topic) for the season of autumn. Now Buson might have had this experience in autumn, and so he used a standard ‘kigo’ for that season, but he just as easily could have imagined it was spring and named a specific bird such as sparrows (assuming he could have made it fit Japanese syllable count). In a situation such as this, perhaps not being specific is better.

  6. Larry Bole says

    Writing my previous post got me to thinking, and another relatively well-known example of the benefit of not being too specific popped into my head (from Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73):

    That time of year thou mayst in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
    Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

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