Sunday, March 16, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 218: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Birds of Killingworth (#218)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Birds of Killingworth" (1863) from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems & Other Writings:

The other day, a friend complimented me on my blog and the thought I put into these LoA posts, which of course comes back to bite me today when I'm given a bit of poetry to read. Now, I've previously said that I'm not a poetry person.

Which reminds me of another discussion I had/listened in to this last week, which was about one of those on-going fights that science fiction has with itself. This time, as usual, the argument revolves around how progressive and welcoming science fiction is--and whether the fandom community has any touchstones. One particularly screwy post harkened back to a Golden Age where Heinlein was our lodestone or guiding star--everyone read Heinlein and no problems were so serious that a good rereading of Starman Jones couldn't solve. (What's screwy with that is the history or the idea that Heinlein was some rock.) 

But it reminded me of the fights that would go on in academia, which very often stem from a slip from action to identity verbs: "I read Heinlein" becomes "I am a Heinlein-reader" much like "I like Marx's theories" becomes "I am a Marxist." Some of this is probably unavoidable and maybe necessary in community formation. (There's no fandom without someone who slips from "I like sf" to "I am an sf fan.") But these identities becomes problematic when they become inflexible and so ego-oriented that any attack on the object of devotion becomes an attack on the self. Which often calls up a defense or aggressive offense. And so we get despised science fiction fans arguing for their inherent superiority to normal people ("Fans are slans!") or this notion that any attempt to stretch science fiction is an attack on oneself.

Which is a long way of saying: relax about not being a poetry person. I've seen a lot of people freeze up when the notion of poetry comes up, as if poetry were some advanced discipline and they couldn't get into it, and any attempt to do so would be wasted energy on their part or an affront to poetry/culture.

If that happens, give them Longfellow. When I started this poem, I felt that cramp one gets trying to do something new. But really: it's a narrative poem about a town that votes to kill off the birds they think are bad, despite the fact that one speaker at the town meeting totally nails what's going to happen--with the birds gone, the insects will destroy more crops--and then that happens and everyone is sad, until they're able to rebuild their bird population. On top of that simple narrative, Longfellow adds a lot of description of the people and the birds, and there's a lot of comparing going on, which you could write a paper about, if you wanted to. Or you could just take it as a very simple story in poetry form. 

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