Craig Arnold’s “The Singers” is a contemporary poem which addresses a very poignant topic, namely the destruction of the environment caused by human activities. The poet chooses to focus on a specific aspect of this broad topic, namely the rapid extinction of bird species which is accentuated by the destruction of their environment. The speaker laments the fact that many species of birds are on the verge of extinction, and expresses concern over the disappearance of creativity together with the death of the natural world. The speaker dramatizes this environmental problem by illustrating the loss that humans face from the perspective of the artist, who will no longer find inspiration.
The poem is comprised of three stanzas, and each stanza contains a different idea related to the imminence of an environmental collapse. In the first stanza, the speaker describes the situation of the singers (1), who “do not understand that they are dying” (Arnold 12). In the second stanza, the speaker returns to the past, in a melancholic remembrance of the ways in which the natural worlds, and particularly, the birds, have inspired poets and songwriters. Their voices, their melodies, and even their mating habits represent the inspiration for human romantic and artistic behaviour, but today, people tend to forget it. Finally, in the third stanza, the poet brings readers back to the present, and forces them to acknowledge the imminence of this mass extinction. The environmental concern expressed in this poem suggests the fact that nature, even in this stage of near collapse, continues to inspire poets.
The poem is unrhymed and is written in free verse. The form of the poem suggests that its topic concerns the contemporary society and for this reason, the poet chose to represent it in a modern manner, using verses lack pattern, rhyme and meter (Beyers 15), perhaps in the same way that the planet would lack the melodicism and rhythms of the birds’ songs, after they disappear. The author uses enjambment extensively in the poem as well, for example in the verses “like the Spartan poet/ singing under the burden of his old bones” (Arnold II.3), in order to keep readers focused on particular ideas which are emphasized in this way. The innovative form of the poet’s verses goes beyond free verse, because the poem contains no punctuation marks. The blank spaces seem to mark the absence of these punctuation marks instead.
The first stanza creates a grim image which suggests violence, death and the loss of all hope. In the first stanza, the poet represents the tragic situation the natural world by using words that refer to decay, such as “ their tails/are ragged and pitiful the long green/feathers are fallen out” (Arnold I.2-4). The poet also refers to death using such words as murderers (I.2), cold corpses (I.7), rot, and slaughter (Arnold I.11). The anaphora “they are threatening to leave” opens each stanza, and refers to the imminent extinction of bird species. This anaphora is followed in the first stanza by two metaphors which describe the birds, “the nimble-throated singers/ the little murderers with the quick pulses” (I.1-2). These metaphors situate the birds within the natural world. They are living beings whose “quick pulses” suggest their liveliness. They are lively and fun due to their nimble –throats but also, they are “little murderers” because they kill and eat insects. The first stanza focuses on visual images, creating a picture of a decaying natural world, where the natural order is reversed, because the wren threatens to kill the cat.
In the second stanza, the poet blames humans for having forgotten the importance of birds which inspired people to sing, and to love. The poet uses the pronoun “We”, to suggests that he refers to humanity in general. In lines 3 to 9, the speaker makes an extensive reference to the past, and in particular, to Greek hymns. He refers to the Alcman, Spartan poet who used to sing “to the chorus girls with their honey songs and their holy voices”. He was inspired by the kingfisher, the poet explains. He gives a voice to the poet, and emphasizes the lines he attributes to the Greek artist by using italics. In these lines, Alcman confesses, “ I know the tunes of every bird but I Alcman/found my words and song in the tongue of the strident partridge”(Arnold 8-9). This historical persona was inspired by birds and their songs and melodies. The poet’s rhetorical question, “where will we find songs”, which is marked by an alliteration, refers to the poet’s panic over the loss of beauty and diversity in the natural world. The word “song” is a synecdoche because the author refers to art in general.
The next lines of the second stanza include a richness of bird species, which are added to the ons already named by the poet. For example, he refers to the crows and the wren (I.9), the kingfisher (II.6), the partridge (II.9), the mallards (II.11), the duck and the drake (II.12). , all of which have different characteristics that makes them unique and wondrous. The author then describes the ducks’ mating ritual. The speaker uses personification, when he refers to the actions performed by the duck and the drake. Thus, the duck is described as reluctant and the drake is lovesick (II.12). She turns her head to the side to scold him” (Arnold II.13) and “her boyfriend chases off his rival” (II.14). This creates a connection between the animal world and the human world. However, the author uses onomatopoeia, such as “whack whack whack whack whack” (II.13). and “reeb reeb”(II.14) to create an auditory image of the courting ducks and to help the readers to envision them. The poet goes on with a series of action verbs which describe the ducks’ mating in detail. These rituals, the poet suggests, inspire humans’ romantic poetry as well.
In the final stanza, the poet suggests that everything is not yet lost, although their death is imminent. Humanity is in a crucial point where “the dark clarity between sleep and waking” (III.3) at dawn allows for clear sight and for even greater inspiration than before. The antithesis “sleep and waking” is used to convey this contrasting effect of the slow extinction of nature, which provides a climatic experience to artists. Craig Arnold is known for his ability to uncover crucial meanings in apparently unimportant aspects of life, such as the song of a bird .In fact, one author explains that, “he found mystery in a hidden bird, in a train ride, in a phone number. It was—and in his poems, it will always remain—a very powerful kind of magic” (Lindenberg n.p.). In this stanza, the bird’s song triggers a spiritual experience in the ones who hear it. The personal address, “you” in this stanza is used to persuade readers to listen to the songs of birds, in order to gain this spiritual experience, during which the bird’s song can create a fade memory in humans, a memory which crosses generations to become part of the human experience as a whole.
Arnold, Craig. “The Singers”. Poetry. 2008. Web.
Beyers, Chris. A history of free verse. 2001. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press.
Linderberg, Rebecca. “The Magic of Craig Arnold’ Poetry”. Beatrice: Introducing Readers to Writers Since 1995.n.d. Web.