Anthropology Poetry

In honor of my daughter, who is this very moment taking her anthropology qualifying exam, I’ve found some anthropology poetry connections.

In this short essay, Robert Peake thinks about how poetry can be a kind of anthropology — the idea of “poet as anthropologist” — in contrast to the recently popular confessional poetry point of view — “poet-as-person-who-confesses.” The author makes the point that poets might be tired of gazing at their navels, and are now more likely to gaze at the navels of others.

“[…] American poets are no less united in the cause … to “extend the imaginative franchise”–with its power to renew our understanding of what it means to be human. It is in this pursuit that poetry and the actual science of anthropology intersect. At the end of postmodernism, having our ideas of objectivity and centrality blasted to bits by the Second World War, we are beginning to pick up the pieces.

But simply gluing them back together is no longer an option. Having examined our own little fragment ad nauseum through confession, we are finally beginning to relate more inquisitively to our own, and the other, shards. In what I hope history will regard as our current period of “late postmodernism” or perhaps “post-postmodernism,” we return in poetry to the one question a Google search can’t answer for us: what is it, this thing called “being human?”

And because I want to give my daughter (to whom I have mailed a copy of this poem) and you, gentle digital reader, a moment to slow down with a poem and consider what it means to be human, here is a wonderful mysterious poem I found, just for you.

By James Galvin

Remember the night you got drunk
and shot the roses?
You were a perfect stranger, Father,
even my bad sister cried.

Some other gravity,
not death or luck,
drew fish out of the sea
and started them panting.

The fish became a man.
The archer’s bow became a violin.
I remember the night you searched the sofa
for change

and wept on the telephone.
Some other gravity,
not time or entropy,
pulled the knife down for centuries.

The archers dropped their bows,
harmless as pine needles in the snow.
The knife became a plow
and entered the earth, Father.

Later it became a boat
and some other things —
It isn’t a dream but it takes a long time,
for the archer’s bow to become a violin.

James Galvin, “Anthropology” from Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. Copyright © 1997 by James Galvin. Copper Canyon Press,

For future exploration:

(In case you came today to get a prompt to write a poem, read this related post.)

Prompt #23 Green Birds

Happy (not Saturday) Monday! and Happy St. Patrick’s Day (if you’re Irish or otherwise celebrate the day) and Happy Green Birds of California Day (if you’re a slightly crazed poet…)!

I missed my chance to post my prompt on Saturday, and yesterday I spent the day outdoors in the sunshine and prepping for today’s poetry teaching start at a local elementary school. Now, three cups of tea later, I’m finally recovered enough think of a prompt and write a poem to go with it. Fortunately for me, one of my favorite blogs, Audublog, affiliated with Audubon California, has provided me with this fabulous post about green birds of California to get me (and all of us) started.

Let’s think of a poem today as something you can write that surprises you. Something you write in your own unique voice, without cliches. If you think of a green bird, you might visualize a bird you’re familiar with: a Mallard duck, an Anna’s hummingbird. And you could write a perfectly good poem about one of those. But what about the Violet-green swallow? Or the even less likely Ruby-crowned kinglet? Who names a green bird “ruby-crowned”?? I think my favorite green bird from this post is the Hutton’s vireo. I wonder who Hutton was? And why he named this sweet little fellow with the multicolored striped wings after himself?


The tradition of writing poetry about birds is very Romantic (and yes, I mean that with a capital “R”). Here are a couple obvious choices:

One of my favorite bird poets writing today is Mary Oliver, who has written scads of  poems about egrets, owls, hummers.

Another favorite poet, Brenda Hillman, also writes about birds — they pop up in her strange and prickly poetry where least expected.

I couldn’t find any poems about the Hutton’s vireo, but I did find a great website that helps the birder differentiate one from a ruby-crowned kinglet — filled with great descriptions of their wings, head shape, and their songs. How is this for a delightful description of sounds that can’t be written down?

Voice is a much better character and is diagnostic once learned. The oft-heard, soft rattle of the kinglet is a dominant sound in wintering mixed flocks; it has been described as a scolding “je-dit, je-dit,” or “chiditdit” or a machine-gun “ah-a-a-a-a-a-a,” but it is not the least bit whinny. The vireo gives a typical vireo scold, a whinny descending “whee-we-we-we,” a nasal descending “cheee,” or may sing its two-part monotonous upslurred “zuwee” or “chew-wheet” song on warm days at any time of year (sometimes a downslurred “zeeoo…zeeoo….zeeoo.” In coastal California, serious singing by the vireo often begins in February when there are still a lot of kinglet around.

Your challenge for this week is to write a poem about a green bird. Investigate the Audublog, or look out your window and see what’s in your garden. Take a walk to a local pond and check out the ducks. Listen to the birds. Write down what they sound like. And then imagine that you can understand their songs — that would make a poem worthy of spring.