ABSTRACT

If such a thing as a naturally occurring literature were to exist (and who are we to say that it does not?), it would undoubtedly be the song of birds. Scientists tell us that songbirds, or oscines, as they term them, emit songs that are so distinctive that members of the same species can identify each other by repeating vocal patterns whose frequencies, pitch, and repertoire encode a language of whose multiple functions the demarcation of territory and the enactment of sexual selection are only the most conspicuous. Indeed, birdsongs constitute a language, or set of languages, whose complexity humans can merely fathom. Poets have said something similar for a long time, but they have said it in ways that resemble the songs they are describing, for, in writing of nightingales or robins or crows, poets also emit songs that single them out to other poets, who are the only ones to fancy they can fathom this particular form of language. This is one of poetry’s favorite conceits and perhaps its foundational premise.