The Early Bird

Still dark, and raining hard
on a cold May morning

and yet the early bird
is out there chirping,

chirping its sweet-sour
wooden-pulley notes,

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.