"A Canticle To The Waterbirds"–by William Everson Essay, Research Paper
In the spring of 1950 my Guggenheim Fellowship ran out, and I
found myself on Skid Row. I had two choices open to me: I could enter a religious order or
go back to my job. I approached the Benedictines and then the Franciscans, but nothing
jelled with either of them. From their point of view, I was too new a Catholic—before
undertaking religious life the Church prefers a two year interim after Baptism. From my
point of view, the men I spoke with gave me no satisfaction as to the role of the poet in
their version of the monastic life. Then I met a priest named Ralph Duggan who sent me
down to a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality newly opened in West Oakland. I remained
there fourteen months. And there I wrote "A Canticle to the Waterbirds," the
poem which comprises the text of this book.
It was not, however, composed for the Feast of St. Francis, as the by-line under the
title reads in the Poem’s original appearance. That was added later to give honor to the
Franciscan spirit, as I had reverenced it in my sojourn among the poor. The Feast of St.
Francis is October 4, whereas the first draft of the "Canticle" is dated August
5. No celebration of a saint, therefore, gave the poem birth, but something else,
something of deeper travail. It was an impulse only the birds could release.
From time immemorial birds have symbolized man’s relation to a superior reality. The
Dictionary of Symbols declares:
Every winged being is symbolic of spirituality. The bird, according to Jung, is a
beneficent animal representing spirits or angels, supernatural aid, thoughts and flights
of fancy. Hindu tradition has it that birds represent the higher states of being.
With me it was always so, and no need for the dictionary to tell me. As a boy I
followed them through the fields with my heart in my throat, wonder-struck.
Now on Skid Row I had need of them. In the spring of 1950 a recession was on and the
field-workers poured into Oakland every day on the freights to panhandle and try to pick
up a job. In our store-front hospice we were dishing up as many as a thousand bowls of
soup a day. At night we slept forty men, mostly in cots, but on cold nights we let them
lie down anywhere they could find space. Sweet wine was their single love, their sole
beatitude. They embraced that passion as very few saints ever embraced their God, and at
last overjoyed, retched up their dreams on the bottle that fed them. Night after night I
lay among them staring up into the dark, shaken by their proximity, barely able to sleep.
But something kept me there. Once, I remember, I broke away, returning to Berkeley
determined to get back my job. I found a good, comfortable hotel, bathed, relaxed, and
went to bed. But all night long in the room next to mine a man and a woman, drunk, lusted
and fought. Next morning, chastened, I returned to Skid Row.
Then one day I wrote the "Canticle." In the long summer dusks we used to walk
the Oakland estuary, among the deserted factories and warehouses, and out along the silent
piers. Where all day long an inferno of deafening racket enveloped the machines, now lay a
most blessed peace. In these moments of solitude we thought of the men back at the
hospice, broken, shabby, wine-sotted, hopeless. Out there on the estuary, over the water,
the gulls lifted their wings in a gesture of pure felicity. Something sudden and
conclusive broke bondage within me, something born of the nights and the weeks and the
months. My mind shot north up the long coast of deliverance, encompassing all the areas of
my ancient quest, that ineluctable instinct for the divine—the rivermouths and the
sand-skirled beaches, sea-granite capes and bastions and basalt-founded cliffs—where
despite all man’s meanness a presence remains unspoilable, the sacred Zone between earth
and sea, and pure—pure action, pure purpose, pure repose. Its image and instance is,
of course, the birds. In the stretch of the mind they flocked together, hungering for
entry, ravenous for that which gives them existence. In a great visionary moment they
cried the cry of prime creation. The spirit of the poem, adamant, circled its locus of
signification like a shearwater circling a swimming eel, and picked it from the waters.
Looking at the first draft now, a pencil scrawl on binder paper done in a kind of bird
track uncial, it seems everything it was to be came in direct flow. As a writer I am not a
believer in the cult of non-revision, but this poem is of the element. What it became it
was. There is a change in the size of script about halfway through indicating a time
break, as if something interrupted the opening flux, but the mind picked up the theme
again under the aegis of something tighter, a more compressed and applicative mood,
driving on through, going right on out to the end, pretty much as it is. Two more drafts
in pen and ink that same date crystallized the essence. Then the poem, laid aside, went
unperfected till I found my place among the Dominicans. Published first in The Catholic
Worker, anthologized in The New American Poetry where it went around the world,
it soon became my best known poem. Now this introduction serves as testimonial to its
first separate printing.
In many ways I do not understand it. The paucity of early drafts indicates the thing
had pretty well worked itself out in the unconscious before pencil ever touched paper,
and, contrary to prevailing opinion, when his happens it is a sign that you are in the
presence not of already known but of a living mystery. The poem, granted, is perfectly
comprehensible; what is difficult to grasp is how it works. A simple meditation of the
mutual relation between birds and God and man, it develops, extends itself, finds its
point of culmination, and closes. Nothing to it. Even its excessively long line escapes
affectation, avoids pretentious Whitmanesque muscle-flexing, in the pseudo-Beat fashion,
as some have accused. It is indeed in the Beat fashion—may even be the archetypal
Beat poem, since it preceded Ginsberg’s Howl by five years, but it is probably not
violational enough to claim that honor. But my point is that the intolerable line is not a
thing that was adventitiously worked up to fit the polity of literary revolt. It is right
there in the original draft, unconscious, part of its nature.
For though the thing looks ragged it is, like the best Beat poetry, organic. At no
period of my life was I in a less "literary" frame of mind. Literature was
something I had put by for the duration of my sojourn while I struggled for sheer survival
through the force of unmitigated prayer. Unconscious formality, wherever it prevails, does
so as a presence, an innate spiritual substance. As far as I am concerned the
"Canticle" has it. That is why on platform I begin almost every performance with
it, finding it never grows stale. I have no other poem so perfectly proportioned to the
task of effecting a basic shift in the consciousness of an audience, precipitating the
crisis of encounter, the struggle between a poet and a people as to whose will shall
As for this book, this first separate edition, I am, of course, deeply honored by it;
hence I cannot with propriety speak of its measure of success in subject and attempt.
Allen Say’s picture s certainly need no praise; their astounding transparency is manifest:
the art of seeing surrendered to the lens. Especially those of which I am the subject
stand outside the scope of anything I ought to say of them, for in the photograph the
stranger that is ourself most eludes the challenge of our gaze upon him; and for this we
may be thankful, nothing being more fatal than to fall in love with that part of us which
another sees, and we cannot. But his birds are my own. They float through these page s as
no words can. Their reflections haunt the depths as their wings winnow the surface of what
I have written. When the voice has died away they remain in the mind’s eye, imperishable,
the image of what God in their moment of creation saw, and, seeing, exclaimed upon.