Thursday, July 5, 2007

Why Birds Sing

I'm currently reading a book called Why Birds Sing, by David Rothenberg, which is... all right. Full of interesting tidbits and facts, but the writing style itself is a bit haphazard and argumentative.

Although he certainly cites scientific studies a great deal, Rothenberg obviously has no affinity or knack for the nuances of scientific thought, which leads him to continually bring up conclusions and observations that he then dismisses as being so obviously insufficient to explain the beauty of birdsong. As a reader who likes the "natural sciences" and doesn't think they claim to explain beauty and art away, I sometimes wish he'd done a deeper investigation into some of the ideas. For instance, when talking about complex plumage and birdsong as ways of attracting mates, he refers to the scientific theory of the "handicap," that animals with physical attributes or behaviors that might seem detrimental to survival flaunt these things as a way of saying, "Hey, look, I have a ridiculously long and brightly-colored tail, and I'm still better than all the other males at escaping predators--so I must be extra strong and fast." Rothenberg then goes on to say that this theory is insulting and demeaning as a way of explaining birdsong--that it is simply unsatisfying to see natural beauty and music as "handicaps" of an animal.

But personally, I think of the skylark--a bird which is unique in its ability to sing while in flight. Singing takes so much energy that most birds cannot do both. While beig pursued by a predator, the skylark sings loudly and marvelously, as a way of declaring that it is strong and healthy and that it can afford to waste energy singing even when fleeing for its life. This is an example of the "handicap" theory--you would think natural selection would favor birds that conserve their energy and escape predators more efficiently--but to me, it also seems a perfect and moving example of beauty for its own sake and the stubborn triumph of song. Rothenberg is silent on the possibility that beauty-as-handicap is itself an inspiring idea.

In any case, thus far the topics that Rothenberg handles best--and what I find most fruitful and fascinating about the book--is the relationship between birdsong and human language, whether that language is poetry or music. The book is full of excerpts of poetry inspired by birds and their singing, as well as examples of attempts to transliterate or transcribe birdsong into musical notational or pronounceable syllables for the human tongue. Many of these border on poetry or, in the case of old sonograms, visual art. For these bits alone, the book was worth the price (and, I have a feeling, the audio CD of improvisational musical performances of the author with live birds may also prove rewarding).

One new poem I have discovered through this book is "The Singing," by Kim Addonizio. The excerpt included in Why Birds Sing is as follows:

I could say it's the bird of my loneliness
asking, as usual, for love, for more anyway than I have, I could as easily call it
grief, ambition, knot of self that won't untangle, fear of my own heart. All
I can do is listen to the way it keeps on, as if it's enough just to launch a voice
against stillness, even a voice that says so little, that no one is likely to answer
with anything but sorrow, and their own confusion.

A reading of the full poem is available here. Reading this excerpt reminds me of a poem that I wrote after attending a concert by Steve Vai and listening to an encore performance of his largely improvisational, meditative hymn, "For the Love of God" (a new, orchestral version available on Vai's MySpace page)--the same sense of the ever-deepening community of sound which has no clearly-defined "meaning" in the linguistic sense. Strangely enough, although I was very moved by Addonizio's poem on the page, I didn't much like her reading of it--her voice carries a kind of forced lilt that many poets adopt when performing their poetry which, in this case, seemed to trivialize or downplay the musicality of the birdsong she was recalling. Still, an excellent poem.


  1. Thank you Ali, for your well-read post and your good points. I agreed with many of them. After all, I am not a theologian, but an American historian by trade; my personal experiences with Christianity and the way it is portrayed by modern American society, as well as a cursory knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome, and post-Roman Europe were the basis for my post, which I'll admit was basically unedited.

    I must rebut a few of your points, however.

    Firstly, though the Enlightenment may not have taken directly the Pagan ideas of the Classical world, the ideas it did take (democracy, for example) were directly influenced by a diverse and Pagan society.

    Secondly, though the Medieval Church may have only been participant in the Dark Ages, it certainly incurred some travesties that were hallmarks of the cultural collapse. Mainly, the Inquisition and other like-minded operations, and the Crusades. Besides, I didn't mean to imply that the Church was the cause of the Medieval period so much as the ruler of it. You must admit, the Church likely did more to keep society in the dark ages (though not necessarily consciously) than it did to lift if from them.

    Thirdly, what is Christianity if not superstitious? To believe in Jonah and the whale, or that Eve came from Adam's rib, requires a certain acceptance of things that defy the laws of nature. There are numerous irrational things in Christianity that are often taken as absolute truth, instead of with a grain of salt.

    Granted, this is a fairly childlike view of the Bible, and fewer and fewer Christians these days ascribe to such beliefs. But that does not mean that these beliefs are not a part of the Christian tradition.

    Fourthly, I didn't say the goal of Christians was to make everyone Christian, I said Christianity, which is another thing entirely. A central tenet of Christianity is the spreading of the Word, or evangelizing. Think about it, without Paul spreading the message, Christianity would have remained an obscure Middle Eastern cult born of the Jewish tradition. Christianity also has the threat of hell behind it. Few today choose to believe in that hell, but it is still a part of Christianity. So the implication is that unless one converts, one is going to hell.

    I suppose the concept of conversion equating sameness is my own bias. I'm a polytheist, so I tend to prefer diversity to monoism. Also, I was unaware of the true definition of catholic. I like it, though I can't say the same for the institution that represents it.

    Fifthly (if that's even a word), if Paganism were more prevalent, I'm inclined to believe that the world would be a more tolerant place. Granted, I may be wrong in this, as many Pagans have Christian and monoist backgrounds, and are, of course, only human. However, acceptance of others is a central tenet in the lives of most Pagans, myself included. So I'm inclined to believe that no one would be "spew[ing] forth intolerant messages" against anyone, least of all "atheist" Christians (also, I don't understand why you think we would call them atheist, which is contradictory to Christianity on a very basic level. Monotheists would perhaps be a better word?).

    And finally, no one ever said diversity was easy. It's not. Ask Europe, which is experiencing what America has experienced for nearly its entire existence as a nation. It is my personal opinion that if evangelism and monoism (that is, the notion that one and one alone as the only Truth and that one must force others to agree) did not exist, it would be easier.

    Of course, that is only one opinion. *grin*

    Again, thank you for your comment and the stimulating discussion!

  2. Ali, it's so intriguing to me that a "community of sound" can have a meaning, even if there is no meaning in the usual linguistic sense. I wonder what the results would be of doing a phonosemantic analysis of birdsong and "nonsense" poetry?...