The Early Bird
by Ted Kooser
Still dark, and raining hard
on a cold May morning
and yet the early bird
is out there chirping,
chirping its sweet-sour
pleased, it would seem,
to be given work,
hauling the heavy
bucket of dawn
up from the darkness,
note over note,
and letting us drink.
Metaphors are mortal. Most die silently, decay, and are forgotten. Others become fossils; such are the ones we call dead. We find them sometimes in cookies. Frequently, they attend meetings. The news of their death is reported almost daily in the pages of editorials and opinion magazines. Often, if we have nothing to say, we say them ourselves. Or we tell them to children, especially those in kindergarten, we wish to bore to sleep.
Many a proverb is a locket with a fossil inside. Once there was the image of a reluctant horse, now there stands in its place a reflex of language. Once a careful tailor threaded economy to forethought without seam, but only a nervous tic of the tongue remains of such labor.
A similar fate has befallen the early bird. I imagine that by now he is tired of catching the worm. There have been so many mornings. There have been so many worms. What use being first if there were so many worms? Why not, just once, a cricket? Or that grasshopper there, the one with the fiddle. In DC last summer there was a great feast to be had of cicadas. The birds could sleep to noon if they wanted and venture just a few feet to breakfast in luxury. These were the days of plenty, when none could go hungry, not if they tried. But the early bird could only look on, caged in words and consigned to a diet of worms. Such is the price of becoming a token of diligence, you stop being a bird.
From what I’ve heard, Ted Kooser is an assiduous writer and an early riser who worked on his poems before leaving for the office—an early bird, one might say. (An early bard one might also say, but puns will have to wait, today is metaphor.) He is also, from what I have read, a poet particularly attentive to metaphor. He is not the sort of fellow who let’s dead metaphors wander about in his verses, not without good reason. But a dead metaphor is only a problem if you use it as a metaphor.
A consequence of being a platitude is becoming familiar. There’s a game I’ve been playing since high school that consists of finding proverbs that could be complete sentences if truncated. Some examples: you can lead a horse to water; the road to hell is paved; a penny saved is a penny. These have a comic effect that relies on their being complete thoughts that seem incomplete by force of habit. The habit of words is a tool at our disposal. As surely as your pupils dilate at darkness, if I say “an apple a day”, you’ll think “keeps the doctor away”. You might not mind that “death is the mother of all beauty”, but “all’s well that ends” is discomforting.
When we read the title The Early Bird, we don’t think of a bird so much as we think of the phrase. And along with the phrase comes a sentiment. Allusion is a wonderfully economical device (letting culture do our work for us) that runs the risk of being missed entirely or seeming snobby. However, one can allude to clichés with confidence.
We know from the proverb that the early bird is a worker, a good worker who goes eagerly to his labors. And we know what his labors are. He’s out to catch the worm. It may be dark, it may be raining, it may be cold, but the early bird is out there because, dammit, the early bird catches the worm. Yet at the fourth line the early bird is not a hunter but a singer. Look at the early bird out there chirping away—such diligence.
The poem then pivots around a metaphor: the bird’s chirp is the chirp of a wooden pulley. The early bird is still a worker, but not the sort we would have had him be. The pulley is a device at the well, fresh with rain. The bird is lifting the sun, the bucket of daylight, out of the darkness, out of the rain, out of the cold. His chirps are the signs and the means of his labor.
In the proverb, the bird finds sustenance catching the worm. In the poem, the bird sustains us letting us drink. The early bird is much changed by the end of the poem. No longer looking out for number one, he is instead steadfast in the service of others. But what is it that we drink?
If Jon were here, I would propose a toast: to the dailiness of life.
4 responses to “Worms, Worms, Worms”
[…]For instance, I can see right now that I have not yet commented on Brian’s brilliant post from a couple weeks back, which I have been meaning to do.[…]
What a beautifully written post—you’ve painted a pleasant little poem subtly, with just enough color to catch the eye, draw it in, make it take a more careful examination of its contours and outlines, of its shades and of its depths. On first reading, I thought the poem was nice enough (particularly as the early birds have recently returned to Cambridge, and I am now sleeping late enough to enjoy their daybreak serenades), but viewed through your lens, it is exquisite. Thank you.
I made a few notes when reading through, and I place them here for lack of a more convenient margin to write them in.
I’ve never really understood what “the early bird gets the worm” is supposed to mean. While many platitudes are trite, this one seems to me beyond the pale. Certainly, people earlier in the queue are more likely to get the goods—that is, indeed, how queues operate. Or is it supposed to be a message about innovation and early adoption? Is it an instruction on diligence, or vigilance, or building healthy habits? I fear that if anyone ever told me in any earnestness that I should take some course of action because, you know, the early bird gets the worm, I should rebuke them for their laziness of thought. And then I should remind them of the old Irish saying: “He who makes a name for rising early can sleep until midday.”
A consequence of being a platitude is becoming familiar. I would have thought it went the other way. If you’ve got it right, is this not a sad testament of significant human failing? That’s not to say that you haven’t got it right…
I imagine that by now he is tired of catching the worm. How did Camus put it? “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I like your game. There are so many platitudes to choose from, though perhaps I shouldn’t count my chickens. The spirit is willing. You can’t make a silk purse. You can, however, put lipstick on a pig. Why buy the cow? Rome wasn’t built. He who laughs last, laughs—and laughter, as you know, is the best.
In DC last summer there was a great feast to be had of cicadas. The birds could sleep to noon if they wanted and venture just a few feet to breakfast in luxury.
Damn it, Brian, that is a fine post.
Your post makes me realize that what this particular dead trope, nestled in the hay of our minds, has bequeathed to the world is a character. The early bird. Old fellow. What is he up to, these days? Ah, the worm. But wait… the poet redeems him, like the daring director willing to imagine a sympathetic Iago or a kind-hearted Richard. So, he is not simply rushing to beat the rest of us to a slimy breakfast. He is out there in the driving rain—not for his own gain but for our sakes. And not as a tragic hero but as one who delights in work, as good, humble people do.
But you want to know what drink he is bringing us by dragging dawn up in his chirpy way. I am tempted to point toward something that I am quite certain the poet doesn’t mean. Thomas Hardy heard hope against hope in a bird’s song at the bleak moment when the 20th century dawned and the previous century was laid out in gray before his imagination like a corpse:
But in Kooser’s poem its not hope that the bird is bringing up with his straining—nothing so psychological. Rather, its simply the new day—the dailiness of the day, indeed. The bird shows up for work, rain be damned, and when birds sing the rest mechanism of nature turns and the day begins. Sky lightening, nocturnal creatures retiring, day risers moving about and birds chirping—these we drink; and on a cold and rainy May morning it might very well seem that the chirping birds have to pull a bit for the others.
[…] Brian’s post about the early bird, lovely post that it was, left a small, very nasal fly inside my head who has been buzzing away, demanding a good swatting. This little essay is meant to be a rolled up piece of paper with which to do away with him. […]