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
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
there fourteen months. And there I wrote "A Canticle to the Waterbirds," the
It was not, however, composed for the Feast of St. Francis, as the by-line under 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
something of deeper travail. It was an impulse only the birds could release.
Dictionary of Symbols declares:
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
up a job. In our store-front hospice we were dishing up as many as a thousand bowls of
lay among them staring up into the dark, shaken by their proximity, barely able to sleep.
determined to get back my job. I found a good, comfortable hotel, bathed, relaxed, and
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
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
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
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
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
unperfected till I found my place among the Dominicans. Published first in The Catholic
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,
presence not of already known but of a living mystery. The poem, granted, is perfectly
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.
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:
stranger that is ourself most eludes the challenge of our gaze upon him; and for this we
another sees, and we cannot. But his birds are my own. They float through these page s as
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.