OK, so every week as Poetry Friday approaches, I think: I should tell the caged birds story. But I never get around to it, because the story pretty much begs the posting of the poems the story is about. Which means I’d need to canvas my grad-school chums to see if any of them would let me share their poems-from-the- story here (if they can even find copies); and my own poem- from-the-story is about a mile long, and that’s a lot of typing.
Plus it’s always a bit agonizing to copy out a piece of your own writing, especially one from long ago—you keep finding things you’d like to tinker with, improve, polish up. At least, I do.
AND YET. It’s a great poetry story. So I’m going to tell it after all, and then maybe later I can ask some of my classmates for permission to share their poems, and maybe I’ll dig up my own poem-from-the-story for a future Poetry Friday.
So all right, one night during grad school (this was at UNC-Greensboro), a bunch of us MFA students were at a party together. Music, laughter, merriment. One of the poets—I think it was Susan Collings, or maybe it was Elizabeth Leigh Palmer? (now Hadaway)—was telling us about Moses Cone, 19th-century philanthropist, entrepreneur, and prominent citizen of Greensboro. One year, it seems, Moses gave his wife the rather remarkable present of twenty-five miles of carriage roads.
That’s what Susan (or Leigh) said, but one of the fiction writers got an intensely puzzled look on her face and said, “He gave her twenty-five miles of caged birds?”
We all laughed, but we were struck, too, by the image. Twenty-five miles of caged birds. For a moment we all fell silent, picturing it, I think, or savoring the magic of the strange phrase.
“It’s like something from a poem,” one of us said. And an idea seized us, a kind of game, a quiet joke we could play on our workshop professor, the brilliant Alan Shapiro. We would each write a poem that included the line “twenty-five miles of caged birds.” And we would all turn them in for workshop the next week, without saying anything about the exercise: we’d let Alan discover the repeated phrase as he read through the poems.
Well, we all went home and did exactly that. There were around ten of us in the workshop. Each of us wrote a poem, working the caged-birds phrase in somewhere, and turned them in for the next class’s discussion. Mine was, as I have mentioned, quite long: it was a framed story about a girl recalling a fairy tale her grandfather had once told to her mother, a variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” The girl actually hears the story from her aunt, not her mother, and that’s part of the tension of the piece. In the grandfather’s version of the tale, the Emperor, having fallen in love with the exquisite song of the nightingale in his vast garden, orders up a hundred replicas in bronze, mechanical birds who sing mechanical songs, placed
“…at intervals in the garden from sea to palace:
twenty-five miles of caged birds and belled orchids.”
The morning of our workshop I was making photocopies in the writing program office when in ran Alan Shapiro. Alan is a dignified and serious person, not prone to running in excitement, but in this moment, he was both running and excited. He had read the first three or four poems and had been so struck by them that he just had to come share the moment with someone. Our program director, Jim Clark, was there, and I don’t remember if we had filled him in on the joke or not, but I remember his eyes twinkling as Alan explained his excitement. He’d read the first poem, and an odd line, the caged birds thing, had jumped out at him as a curious turn of phrase. In that first poem, he wasn’t sure to make of it, but in the next one—I remember he said this one was by Mary Elder, who wrote beautifully spare verses full of startling images—there was the same odd phrase, used in such a way that he decided it must be a figure of speech he was somehow unfamiliar with.
He described reading the next poem, and there it was again, and by now he was wondering what was up. And then he hit my poem, the fairy tale—and he thought, Oh! This must be the origin of the idiom! “Twenty-five miles of caged birds,” this peculiar figure of speech he’d never heard before, must have originated in the Andersen tale my poem reinterpreted.
As you can imagine, this tickled me no end, especially since the miles of mechanical birds were my own twist; in Andersen’s story there is the single artificial bird brought into the palace to outshine the real nightingale.
Well, Alan went back and read the rest of the batch of poems, and it didn’t take long before he realized he’d been pranked. We all howled like crazy at his recounting of events in workshop that afternoon. Our joke had come off even better than we hoped.
But the best part, really, was hearing all the poems—all so incredibly different, carrying the peculiar words into contexts that were oceans apart from each other. As fine a story as Moses Cone’s gift of carriage roads is—how delighted his wife must have been!—it was nothing compared to the distance traveled and the worlds conjured by those caged birds.
This week’s Poetry Friday roundup can be found at Dori Reads, about twenty-five miles down Caged Birds Road.