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  • Writer's pictureRichard Meier

Woodpeckers and wagtails

© Matilda Meier, 2021

Back to the Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku whom I mentioned in a previous blog.

While his given name was Hajime, Takuboku was a pen-name he took on, aged eighteen, at the suggestion of the poet Yasano Tekkan. It means ‘woodpecker’.

I don’t know whether any of Takuboku’s poems reference woodpeckers directly. Perhaps they did, or perhaps it was something of the determined nature of that bird which led to the name being suggested.

Anyway, this poet’s reinvention set me wondering what the bird-names of a number of English language poets might have been.

In terms of poets who are associated with particular birds, some seem pretty obvious – Gerard Manley Windhover and Elizabeth Sandpiper, for example. John Nightingale of course.

I wondered too about Robert Ovenbird (whose second line must surely be a contender for the most sonorous in the language).

When I considered Emily Dickinson in this vein, I thought immediately of a skittish little bird, perhaps a wagtail. I can’t find any reference to wagtails in Dickinson’s work however, although birds did feature heavily in her work - one researcher estimates that birds appear in 15 per cent of her poems even, with Robin being most commonly mentioned.

And I would have gone with Thomas Thrush and yet my googling around wagtails brought me to Hardy’s Wagtail and Baby: a Satire, a poem I hadn’t come across before.

And which is a neater fit for Hardy, I believe – the wagtail’s wariness of the human animal informing the growing mind of the baby being closer to his view of humanity than the hope-bringing thrush. So Thomas Wagtail - or simply, Wagtail – it is.

Wagtail and baby - 'A satire'

A baby watched a ford, whereto A wagtail came for drinking; A blaring bull went wading through, The wagtail showed no shrinking.

A stallion splashed his way across, The birdie nearly sinking; He gave his plumes a twitch and toss, And held his own unblinking.

Next saw the baby round the spot A mongrel slowly slinking; The wagtail gazed, but faltered not In dip and sip and prinking

A perfect gentleman then neared; The wagtail, in a winking, With terror rose and disappeared; The baby fell a-thinking.

Thomas Hardy

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