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This article is taken from PN Review 210, Volume 39 Number 4, March - April 2013.

'The idea of the bird': Bird Books and R.F. Langley

the Problem of Taxonomy and Some Poems by R.F. Langley
Dan Eltringham

             They came in Volume
Three, between the shrikes and the thrushes. They don't care where they come. Nor who is watching them.
                              R.F. Langley, 'Birdwatching Poem'

The birds in question are 'eight waxwing, bibbed, masked and / crested', but does it matter? And is that not what they are, but what we call them? R.F. Langley's poems about birds and birdwatching pose these questions recurrently, without offering definitive answers. Strange though it may sound, bird books give rise to some quite fundamental questions familiar in other forms within the fields of literature and art criticism. How relevant, for example, are scientific modes of enquiry, ways of acquiring and representing knowledge about the natural world, to literary or artistic forms? What is the relationship between the physical world and its represented image, in the dual contexts of the natural sciences and the arts? What is the significance of species identification, taxonomic arrangement and artistic representation in a broader aesthetic and epistemological sense? The bird book represents a confluence of visual art and the natural sciences, and the bird artist, historically speaking, has occupied an intriguing middle ground between ornithological representation as scientific record and as aesthetic form, an ambiguous territory explored in some of the bird poems of R.F. Langley.


R.F. Langley sadly passed away in January 2011, during the writing of this piece, which now seems scant memorial. It is a great loss to contemporary poetics in ...

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