Friday, August 26, 2011

Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds

On our trip to Iowa City several weeks ago, we visited Prairie Lights, one of our favorite bookstores. Browsing the long display of recent books on the main floor, I discovered Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds edited by Billy Collins with paintings by David Allen Sibley. Collins and Sibley are two of my heroes, and I was pleased to find their collaboration. Collins, a former poet laureate of the United States, chose the poems, and Collins contributed paintings of birds doing what birds do - wading, flying, and perching. Collins wrote an introduction, which includes a poem the reader will not want to miss. I am not certain who wrote the captions below the paintings; I suspect Sibley for the most part because they give the kinds of facts that he highlighted in his famous The Sibley Guide to Birds; Collins may have written some that refer to the poems that follow.

The poems come from the historical parade of poets, back to the Roman lyricist Catullus and up to contemporary poets, including Kevin Stein, Dorian Laux, and Collins himself. The book could serve well as a topical introduction to the world of poetry, which includes, John Keats, the Brownings, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver, and many other well-known poets. Collins said in his introduction that he purposely avoided overused titles, "The Swans" by Yeats and "The Raven" by Poe, but there is still an excellent representation of the masters.

Collins starts the collection fittingly with a tribute "John James Audubon" by Stephen Vincent Benet.

Of course, collections will always include some poems with which I don't connect, but Bright Wings has plenty of poems I did like and admire. My favorites include the philosophical "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver, a humorous portion of "Woody's Restaurant, Middlebury" by Greg Delaney, and the nightmarish "A Barred Owl" by Richard Wilbur. I enjoyed the rhyming in Elizabeth Bishop's "Sandpiper" and the story told in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Emperor's Bird's-Nest." Slogging through a few titles I did not like was worth the effort, for I found much that I did enjoy.

Bright Wings is an attractive book that should be found in many public libraries. It would also make a nice gift to a literate bird-loving friend.

Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds edited by Billy Collins, paintings by David Allen Sibley. Columbia University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780231150842.

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