When I was in graduate school, John Irwin asked the members of my poetry workshop whether any of us could name the species of tree we walked under every day to get into the building we were sitting in. None of us could. At first, I found his question annoying; I was there to study poetry, not botany. In time, however, I came to realize that he was making a very important point.
You see, what he was trying to tell that roomful of 20-something poets — who thought they knew everything — was that poems are made of words, and that words signify things, and that if we couldn’t use words to signify the things in the everyday world all around us, all the time, with great specificity and precision, we weren’t going to make good poems. He told us all to go learn the names of all the tree species on campus as soon as we could. Sadly, I don’t think many of us listened.
It wasn’t until long after I graduated and left campus that I realized the fundamental truth of his proposition: to write in as many different voices as I could, I needed as big a vocabulary as I could muster. It wasn’t trees that got me started, however. It was birds. I started small, with an old pair of binoculars my uncle had given me when I was 13 and a paperback bird book. Now, years later, I have a much better pair of binoculars, a small shelf of bird books in my library, and a “life list” — a record of the North American bird species I’ve spotted — that while still thoroughly amateur, isn’t really embarrassing, either.
Which brings me to John James Audubon. For as often as I’ve seen his work, it never fails to move me. Bright, attentive, detailed, living, exquisite images of birds: a tremendous gift to humanity. (And if you want to give ME a gift, you can start here. Just kidding.) His art is part technique, part devotion, and part science — which is exactly what I’d like mine to be.
In any event, I’m grateful to both Johns (James Audubon and Irwin) for what they’ve done for my vocabulary… and for the attention I pay to the world around me, which I try to keep deepening all the time.