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General Impression of Size and Shape: Poetry & Birds

I grew up with birds. And what I really mean there is, I grew up with a birdwatcher father who liked to tell us what every bird was, and how you might distinguish it from any other bird.

From an early age I was watching birds on the bird feeder in the garden, delighting in their shapes, songs and quirks of personality. We went on day trips to Wales to find red kites (definitely not an easy task in the 90s), and if anything exciting was blown through our part of the Midlands on migration, he and his twitcher friend ‘Shady’ would get the tip off and be out there, telescopes trained on the elusive shrike or warbler.

General Impression of Size and Shape (shortened, regrettably, to GISS) is a birdwatching term, although I think it was originally applied to aircraft, and was used a lot in WW2. It implies storing up a mental library of knowledge that means that when you see a bird you know well, for example, a buzzard or a blackbird, you know, from its size shape and habitat, exactly what it is straight away. And then when you see a bird that is ‘buzzard-sized but not a buzzard’ you can go to your reference point and find out that with its slimmer wings and forked tail, it was a red kite. Or with its long fingery wings and pale head, it was a marsh harrier. You are building new GISS all the time.

A few favourite birdy poetry observations of mine include (answers at the end):

1 – A greying senior lecturer in fish studies (Thames Valley)

2 – the budding chirping swell / of bodies caught up in a flow / that stretched itself like kneaded dough

3 – Ducks tucked in self-pillow

So why have poets so long been obsessed with birds? For me I think poetry requires observing the world around a bit more closely than everyone else. Poetry starts with noticing things. The cliché of a poet staring at the same tree all day is only regrettable because the person observing the poet doesn’t see what they’re looking at. The poet is building up a kind of GISS for the world around them, the way it looks, sounds and feels. The fine details in a poem enable a poet to make something seen, heard, felt in a new way by their reader.

On my upcoming Studio course, Home to Roost, we’ll be fine-tuning our GISS senses and learning to look closely at birds and the things that fascinate us about them, whether it’s their song, their migratory habits or their flight. And we’ll be thinking about how we write ourselves in a world where we are more connected to our birds than we might initially think.

Ever tried to tell the difference between a marsh tit and a willow tit? I’m surprised anyone ever noticed that the two were different birds. Sometimes, two birds will be so similar that it will take years’ worth of GISS to tell them apart. These likely stand-ins for each other are called Confusion Species. I chose this term as the title for my first poetry pamphlet because I like the idea that we’re all mixed up in this together, that nature is something humans are part of rather than something to conquer, or to use as entertainment. All humans are in conversation with the natural world, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.


1 – Richard Price’s ‘A Spelthorne Bird List’ from Lucky Day (Carcanet)

2 – Holly Hopkins’ ‘Starlings’ from Soon Every House will Have One (Smith|Doorstop Books)

3 – Alice Oswald’s A Sleepwalk on the Severn (Faber & Faber)

Explore poetry’s many fascinations with birds, from flight to song, Suzannah’s new online course, Home to Roost: Ornithology Studio. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.

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