In addition to true love’s kiss, praise of one’s native land, and longing for one’s absent beloved, birds have long been the one of the most popular subjects for poetry. From Catullus’ sparrow through Poe’s raven, birds have been admired, envied, questioned, debated, tasked, consulted, and meditated upon in verse for centuries. The reasons for this are not hard to comprehend – most birds can do the one thing humans cannot but dearly wish they could: fly. From this mankind has traditionally inferred them to possess absolute freedom and endowed them with all the powers such a miraculous state of being is assumed to bestow. However in the modern world, just as the style of verse has changed dramatically, so have the uses of its traditional metaphors and imagery. Romanticism has been replaced by an unvarnished realism. In Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds, verse reflecting both the old and the new poetic understanding and inclusion of birds has been collected and is presented in conjunction with contemporary illustrations of the avian world to both entertain as well as inspire the reader to deeper consideration of just what role these marvelous creatures now play in our collective literary imagination.

Edited by Billy Collins, Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College and twice poet laureate of the United States, Bright Wings is a thought-provoking tour through the English language’s depiction of the avian world. Poetry is one of those wonderful human creations about which people of intelligence, taste, and good will may – and indeed should – differ. Verse that, to one person is too rigid and structured, to another is a perfect reflection of the poem’s subject. For this reason, the compiling of an anthology of verse is inherently infused with great difficulty – for as many readers as the editor may please by his or her choices of which poems to include and which to leave out, an equal number are potentially irritated by these same choices.

Curiously, some of the most well-known of all verse written about or prominently involving birds has been left out; most conspicuously missing is Mr. Poe’s infamous and aforementioned raven. However as most everyone with an interest in this as well as other classic bird-themed poems will likely already possess at least one volume containing their particular favorites, the decision to forego such works is understandable (albeit it initially a tad disconcerting to those, such as myself, who hold degrees in English and American literature). Indeed, Professor Collins plainly explains in the book’s introduction his intention to keep the scope of the book broad so as to include not just classic and well known poets such as Longfellow, Browning, Dickinson, and Tennyson, but less commonly known poets, such as Debra Nystrom and Stanley Plumly, as well.

A similar intellectual vein appears to have been tapped when the selection of the illustrations was made. Generously distributed throughout the book are illustrations by one of the most renowned nature illustrators presently working, David Allen Sibley; for as much as the poems selected by Professor Collins depict a more generally impressionistic than classical image of birds and the reactions to them as recorded by the included poets, so the images themselves are slightly canted to the impressionistic side of illustration. Not so much painstakingly detailed in their depiction of their subjects (as would be seen in Mr. Sibley’s field guide illustrations), the included images are softer, more emotional and of-the-moment than classic scientific illustrations.

While every poem included in Bright Wings may not be looked upon favorably by each and every reader, the overall effect of the book once a full reading has been completed is indeed one to inspire further contemplation of how birds have influenced English language verse in the past as well as how they continue to do so today. The world has very much changed since Keats penned his famous ode; Bright Wings well depicts how this change has influenced the manner in which poets choose to incorporate and portray one of literature’s most enduring subjects.

Title: Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds

Authors(s): edited by Billy Collins; paintings by David Allen Sibley

Publisher: Columbia University Press (website, blog)

Date of publication: November, 2009

Format: Cloth, 288 pages, 58 color illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-231-15084-2

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.