The fourth item on my list of required duties as Tweetspeak’s first official Poet Laura is to “read a poem to a chicken, write a poem to a chicken, or do both.” Because art is about suffering, I decided to choose a 19-degree day in late February to accomplish this lofty task.
“What kind of poetry should I read to them?” I messaged my friend Lizzie, who keeps four chickens in her backyard. I’ve made many delicious omelets from Bessie, Susie, Luna, and Agnes’s offerings, and it was time to repay them with literature of the highest caliber.
“I’m not sure. You might need to experiment.”
Instincts told me to grab The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson on my way out the door.
Lizzie coaxed the four lovely ladies from their heated coop with a fresh tomato and freeze-dried mealworms. They descended their wooden ramp with the glamour of young women coming down the stairs for prom. I pulled up a tiny metal stool Lizzie wrenched from the frozen tundra, waited for her to go back inside, opened my book, and began:
I am afraid to own a Body –
I am afraid to own a Soul –
Profound – precarious Property –
Possession, not optional––
Double Estate – entailed at pleasure
Upon an unsuspecting Heir –
It’s a pretty intense six lines, but I received no response but pecking, clucking, and … warbling? Whatever the longer, drawn-out chicken sounds are called, there were plenty of them coming from Luna, the glossy black hen, to accompany my recitation.
As appropriate for the frozen tundra of our far-north Illinois village, I happened to turn to “1444” next, this time incorporating expressive hand motions for effect:
A little Snow was here and there
Disseminated in her Hair –
Since she and I had met and played
Decade had gathered to Decade –
But Time had added not obtained
Impregnable the Rose
For summer too indelible
Too obdurate for Snows –
It was at this point that my fingers, though gloved, began to lose feeling. I reached out to stripy Agnes, the one Lizzie says likes to snuggle up in human laps, but got no love. When it’s that cold outside, you focus on ingesting as many mealworms as possible before retreating back to your heated straw bed.
That’s when I glanced a few poems down and discovered the gem otherwise known as “1448:”
How soft a Caterpillar steps –
I find one on my Hand
From such a velvet world it comes
Such plushes at command
Its soundless travels just arrest
My slow – terrestrial eye
Intent upon its own career
What use has it for me –
As much as I wanted to cuddle up with these plump bundles of hope with feathers, they had no use for me, at least today. And that was okay. There’s something comforting about living in a natural world that does just splendidly without my help, thankyouverymuch. Hearing my own voice in the crystallized air that was quickly approaching dusk, underscored by the chickeny songs of happy feasting, was a moment of peaceful, humble solitude. I imagined Emily looking out her window in Amherst over 150 years ago and smiling.
All in all, I probably spent 20 minutes reading poems to chickens before my backside began to glaciate atop the icy metal stool. I had to bid them adieu. I’m planning on returning in the spring or summer, though, for another session. What poets should I bring with me next time? I’ll take requests.
Featured photo by Linda, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post and photo of Bessie, Agnes, Luna and Susie by Tania Runyan.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish