Yesterday I wrote about Ammons’s poem “Mechanism,” an exploration of the inner workings of a goldfinch. Ammons wrote about many other birds as well, including blue jays, swallows, terns, and grackles. One bird seems to have captured his imagination with special force. In a 1983 interview he responded to a question about the function of the poet by saying “I think of the hermit lark, a shy bird with an unlocatable, indescribable sound. I identify with that in myself and in the poets I read, too.” The hermit lark appears in several Ammons poems, including one simply called “Hermit Lark”:
Shy lark! I'll bet it took a while to get you
perfect, your song quintessential, hermit lark,
just back from wherever you winter: I learn my real
and ideal self from you, the right to sing
alone without shame!
water over stone makes useless brook music; your
music unbearably clear after rain
drops water breaking through air, the dusk air
like shaded brookwater, substanced clarity!
I learn from you and lose the edginess I speak of
to one other only, my mate, my long beloved, and
make a shield not so much against the world,
though against its hardest usages, as
for tenderness's small leeways: how
hard to find the bird in the song! the music
breaks in from any height or depth of the spiral
and whirling up or down, jamming, where does it
leave off: shy bird, welcome home, I love your
song and keep my distance: hold, as I know you
won't, through the summer this early close visitation
behind the garage and in the nearby brush:
you will pair off and hiding find deeper
shyness yet: be what you must and will be:
I listen and look to found your like in me.
The same bird also makes a cameo appearance in one of Ammons’s most touching lyrics, “Poverty”:
I'm walking home from, what,
a thousandth walk this year
along the same macadam's edge
(pebbly) the ragweed rank
but not blooming yet,
a rose cloud passed to the
east that against sundown would be
blue-gray, the moon up nearly
through the tips of street pine,
and the hermit lark downhill
in a long glade cutting
spirals of musical ice, and I
realize that it is not the same for
me as for others, that
being here to be here
with others is for others.
In both these poems Ammons identifies strongly with the hermit lark’s solitary nature. He often said that he felt his poetic calling was to reach out to readers as isolated as he was, to share his solitude with them. The hermit lark thus becomes an emblem of poetic vocation for Ammons, singing at a distance yet audible to passersby.
There’s just one small problem with all this: no bird called the hermit lark exists. Google the term and the only references you’ll find are to Ammons’s poems. Feeling the need for an avian alter ego, Ammons invented the hermit lark. (He might easily have invoked the hermit thrush instead, as Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot had done before him, but he probably felt that doing so would read as literary allusion rather than empirical reference.) In a curious way the hermit lark acts as a natural counterpart to Ezra, the human persona Ammons created in his early poems. He may have really believed such a bird existed, or he may have known it was a fabrication; it’s hard to tell. What’s clear is that the hermit lark filled a crucial place in Ammons’s poetic cosmos, allowing him to project his loneliness onto the natural world and to find a kind of fellowship there that he rarely experienced among people.
(ed note: This post originally appeared on June 19, 2008)