Why ‘The Mockingbird Sings’?

Are not mockingbirds annoying creatures that keep one awake all night with their maniacal singing? Do they not perform mere mimicry of other animals and sounds? Aren’t they aggressive? Did I not see one just a week ago attacking a terrified squirrel? Yes indeed I did and they have ruined my sleep numerous times. The Northern Mockingbird is the State Bird of Florida (Louisiana got the Brown Pelican first). Kind of makes sense in a state full of transplants from the north and with our reputation many northerners think we have mimicked only their worst traits. I digress, as one might expect.

I love these guys!

But the same traits that one might see as negatives can be turned around. Mockingbirds aren’t stupid, they’re tenacious, they know how to hang on, don’t easily let people or other animals fuck with them, and they know a lot – a lot I say – of songs, anywhere from 50 to 200. When you’re beset with the unrelenting singing of a male mockingbird it sounds like a random shuffling of a set of sounds, ever-changing, like a demonic improvisation or the weirdest case of stuck tune syndrome you’ve ever heard. It sounds like that to us because we aren’t capable of memorizing their songs. They know too many, and too many combinations. True, they lift their sounds from other birds, animals and even machines, but the combination and the ever flowing stream of song on song is all mockingbird.

That is something like what a writer does. The notion of literary originality as a wholly new discourse without ties to any others…. well, did anyone ever believe that? One begins writing because one has to respond to the sea of discourses all around. Writing is a response first of all, and the developing writer begins by mimicking others because he doesn’t know how to make up his own song yet. Eventually, through repetition and practice, the songs emerge, and he’s very lucky if he can come up with 50. Take the work of any well-known poet. She really only sings a handful of songs, ever repackaged, dressed up, reconfigured. The same elements, with their roots in responses to others, ever reshuffled. The writer as mockingbird.

And with the idea of the writer as mockingbird comes that of repertoire. How many songs are in your book? Another false notion: write what you know. If a writer only wrote what she knew then she’d rapidly come to the end of her concert. A good writer knows a lot of songs, meaning that through repetition and practice she has learned a lot of combinations based on a limited set of elements. The end result is to defy boredom. Not to drive readers away with the same old again, but to improvise on old themes in a manner that sounds like right now. And that I hope to do, to keep my songs fresh.

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26 Comments

  1. Interesting Mark. Your essay reminded me of one Dave Soldier wrote on a similar subject. Art is a series of self-reflecting mirrors, creating an infinite regress. It is only in our imperfect mimicry that the genesis of originality emerges. http://davesoldier.com/articles/Soldier_Leonardo.pdf

    Reply
    • I’ve always seen artists as people with their senses open wide. When their works are successful, they help others experience the world around them. If everyone experienced the world like artists do, then obviously there would be no need for art. Fascinating article. Thanks Khakjaan.

      Reply
  2. How did I miss knowing about this? Well, no more, that is sure. I look forward enormously to keeping up with you here. Just for starters, I love this observation: “One begins writing because one has to respond to the sea of discourses all around.”

    Reply
  3. How did I not know about this? Well, never mind, because I certainly know now. Harold Bloom wrote something similar to what you’ve written here, though, to my mind, you’ve said it better:” One begins writing because one has to respond to the sea of discourses all around. Writing is a response first of all.”

    Reply
    • I started this as another place for my poetry when I was posting prompts for dVerse, which is a wordpress site, for convenience sake and because a lot of the poets have wordpress blogs. I have just bought my domain name and decided to use this site. The bricoleur metaphor was spacious but this one is even more so, I think.

      Reply
  4. This is such an apt metaphor, Mark…although, for me, mockingbirds are a source of joy and actually show up in my poetry fairly often. When I’m in the desert they sing me awake in the morning. It’s never been a problem at night. Have you changed your blog? I appreciate the follow and am happy to reciprocate. You have so much to offer.

    Reply
  5. hedgewitch

     /  August 22, 2012

    Fascinating how that one set of vocal apparatus can reproduce 50-200 unique calls, all in mockingbird–I don’t know if as a writer I’ll ever be that versatile, but I do completely agree we need to aim for a varied voice, and a varied ear, challenge our boundaries while keeping our passions, and find negatives’ values as well as positives’. Like your newly decorated space, Mark. Not only is it visually attractive, but with my aging eyeballs,the clarity and simplicity of layout and font aids my absorption of the words a lot ( I will update my blog roll for you with this url.)

    Reply
    • Thanks Joy. I think simplicity is always best for writers’ and artists’ websites. If I can I might make the text a little larger.

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  6. Love this beautifully expressed truth. And I think mockingbirds are completely fascinating…even though sometimes relentless to the point of annoyance.

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  7. You asked – “The notion of literary originality as a wholly new discourse without ties to any others…. well, did anyone ever believe that?”

    I answered – Most everyone, at some earlier point.

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  8. Jealous that we don’t have mockingbirds in my neck of the woods but love how you wove your comparison with writers and these talented birds. In fact, I’m going to recommend to everyone in my writer’s group that they pay you a visit because we were just talking about this particular subject at our last meeting. Not mockingbirds, but what makes a writer. Best of luck with your new site, Mark; it’s beautiful.

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  9. What a handsome site you have created here. Sorry I’m late. (I’ve been a bit dilatory about blogging because, like you, I am thinking of pastures new)

    re you post: I don’t know the song of a mocking bird, we don’t have them, but there are birds who copy other birds here too.

    I do believe that writers are best at sticking with what they know, anything else would seem fake, in my opinion. To be a writer you have to to be in tune with all of human nature and most emotions humans experience and you have to be able to convey them in words. Of course writers follow the examples of other writers before them, it is reading which is as important as writing, but all writers must find their own voice. Without a voice of one’s own one is a poor writer.

    Reply
    • Thanks Ursula (that’s a lovely name, by the way). Being in tune, if that means keeping one’s senses wide open and having empathy, is job 1. And I agree writer’s must find/develop their voice. But I think that exactly what that means – finding one’s voice – bears analysis. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

      Reply
  10. Scott

     /  August 27, 2012

    Hi Mark- I I like your ideas in a clear space.Uncluttered in a way. I mean I like disarray,but sometimes the clarity helps one to concentrate. Some of the galleries we visit have this quality. A certain light.
    We have a bird called a whip-poor-will. This is actually it’s song as well. Supposedly nocturnal, it starts in on this incessant chant whenever it feels like it. I love it but some times it’s like,”do you have any idea what time it is?”.
    I just finished a mystery that took place in Natchez. I was intrigued Come to find out that was the authors home. Writing about what you know. .Kind of cool Louisiana is just across the river.
    The brown pelican is cool. I liked the caption, “Love these guys”.Ornithology at it’s finest. Look forward to visiting.

    Reply
    • Nice to see you Scott. I seem to recall the whip-poor-will from my boyhood in Pennsylvania. The bird I remember most was the mourning dove, who always seemed to sing when I was sad (they have followed me to Florida). The pelicans are among my favorite Florida birds. Up close they seem ungainly but flying and gliding they are incredibly graceful and beautiful. And of course they have an ancient, dinosaur-like appearance.

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  11. oh dear…well said, especially about a poet only have a handful of true poems that just get restructured, repackaged, etc.. (I’m paraphrasing here, less eloquently, of course). I tire of my voice…I’ve not found 50 different tunes. Perhaps that is why I gravitate to stream writing, to see if anything shakes loose…in the end, I re-read to find the same dark tune playing, the record going round and round, the needle sometimes getting stuck in the second to last groove ~

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  12. Most interesting.

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  13. Ah, but remember Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking– I find the mocking bird extraordinary….xxxj

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  14. ..and especially lyric poets, I think, borrow from a common cache i.e. the collective unconscious and often the collectively conscious. Because the MFA’s are turning out more and more Mocking Birds it is getting hard to distinguish the nightingale from them. xxxxj

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  15. And then there was the mockingbird who lived near me here on Galveston Bay. He delighted in perching in a tree and quacking like the mallards who surrounded him. He never included “Duck” in his song cycle, but kept it quite separate, delighting me every time I heard it and I suspect delighting himself. I still find him an admirable model for a writer.

    Reply
  16. This is brilliant I love it. Mockingbird….oh yes. I red your poem “fallen” at Opium and it’s gorgeous. You have incredible talent.

    Reply

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