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 prevail.
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.