‘Days are where we live’ wrote Philip Larkin (in ‘Days’) but writing about them (their routine ordinariness, their lack of drama, their simple everyday-ness) demands a quality of observation that eludes many poets. That fashion for flashy titles, the lure of the surreal, the mind-stretching cryptic nature of the abstruse – you know what I mean.
Hamish Whyte has none of that. He is writing in the present, in the small world of everyday and its birds – the regulars who turn up for crumbs, who are our daily companions all the year round. These aren’t the celebrity summer visitors – the first cuckoo/swift/swallow, or the web-cammed peregrine nest on the cathedral spire. Unglamorous (possibly) but loved, the robin (as in Whyte’s title) is Britain’s most popular bird.
I’m looking out for the robin,
the robin’s looking out for me.
A matter of reciprocity: rituals of feeding crumbs, the pecking order of the garden, where (for the birds) it’s all about the basics of survival. So a pared-back simplicity in language suits this subject –
The blue tits flit
at the coconut shell hanging
from the clothes pole,
empty it of fat
dab by dab.
Movement is closely observed. The birds flit ‘at’ the shell, and dabbing is what they do. That motion leads to the next line – ‘They’re anxious birds’. Exactly. This poem is all small movements and worry, even for the poet, who ends with
I’m anxious too, about many things –
though not about lunch.
Which brings me to the dunnocks, a word on which my state-of-the-art Mac bestows the red underlining of doubt, querying the spelling or even the existence of the word.
Dunnocks: small brown loyal birds, so familiar they get little mention in the wider poetic world, although Whyte notes them ‘chittering in the hedge’ (a perfect echo of their sound) and their place in avian society. When the Oxford Junior Dictionary cut a number of words (acorn, kingfisher, bluebell, for example), deeming them obsolete, there was an outcry. Now my computer doubts the dunnock. We need poets like Hamish Whyte to continue naming what we see – and showing our world so exactly.