Noel Reynolds, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wiki­me­dia Commons

 I love the notion of per­formed spon­tane­ity, in that it gets at the fact that what seems nat­ur­al, or impro­vi­sa­tion­al, is still a prod­uct of deci­sion mak­ing, and still leads to a con­scious­ly made thing—a mechan­i­cal nightin­gale rather than the real bird that hap­pens to fly in the window.”

Diane Seuss inter­view with Jesse Nathan in McSweeney’s https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/diane-seuss

1) The mechan­i­cal bird per­forms. Poets perform—mostly on the page. But there is some­thing about hear­ing the music of the poem out loud that will always bring me more than the writ­ten word on the page.

2) Only the unpaired male nightin­gale sings at night. Though so often in poet­ry it is the female bird who is invoked. A mis­at­tri­bu­tion that con­founds the usu­al (mis)assignment of female voic­es to their male counterparts.

3) Have you ever seen a real nightin­gale? It is a dull brown, mid­dle sized bird whose only out­stand­ing asset is its song. When the males sing at night, it’s a macho thing: call­ing all the girls. “Come fuck me, come fuck me.” In the fairy tale when the ser­vant girl takes the court to see the actu­al nightin­gale they are dis­ap­point­ed to see the dull lit­tle bird. One of the ser­vants opines that sure­ly see­ing all of the won­der­ful, pow­er­ful peo­ple of the court must have fright­ened all the col­or out of the actu­al bird. Because, don’t we all get fright­ened out of our col­ors sometimes?

4) I sing my wild­ness like that lit­tle mechan­i­cal nightin­gale. It is love­ly per­for­mance. But every moment of it is cal­cu­lat­ed with an eye towards safe­ty. A mechan­i­cal nightin­gale will give a per­fect per­for­mance. As long as you don’t ask it to fly.

5) machine (n.) “an appa­ra­tus that works with­out the strength or skill of the work­man.”
Which can’t be said of poet­ry? Or can it? Is poet­ry a machine? If it is, what is it a machine for? Does a machine have to have a pur­pose? Are machines with­out pur­pose art? What does this machine do for me? This machine makes… mean­ing? But does it make sense? How can the machine of poem makes sense? What does it make sense of? Why is this frag­ment all ques­tions? And no answers? Or mean­ing? If there is any mean­ing? I guess.

6) A machine allows you to repli­cate a thing. A screw, a table leg, a bird’s song. But a repli­ca­tion is nev­er a new thing. Not entirely.

7) Bird songs are hard to rep­re­sent in text. Var­i­ous field guides use var­i­ous meth­ods to depict the songs. Some use descrip­tives, some use mnemon­ics, some use a vague­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive spec­tro­grams. The Sib­ley Guides use descrip­tive words like: trill, buzz, upslur, downslur, musi­cal, rich, thin, full, and squeaky. The Audubon web­site likes ono­matopoeia: “soft thwacks,” “coo­ing,” “zip-zabbling,” and “chan­nel­ing car alarms and baby bab­bles” and mnemon­ics: “who cooks for you” and “wichity-witchy-woo.” Though they are increas­ing­ly just putting up audio files and you can lis­ten for your­self with out the inter­me­di­ary of the attempt to sig­ni­fy in text.

8) I won­der about the impos­si­bil­i­ty of spon­tane­ity in a machine. Does this imply an impos­si­bil­i­ty of spon­tane­ity in poet­ry? In art in gen­er­al? If we are mak­ing machines to make mean­ing, or con­vey emo­tion, or state facts even, can we be spon­ta­neous? I don’t think so. We may use arti­fice to make it look spon­ta­neous but it is nev­er past the first draft spon­ta­neous. Is even a first draft spon­ta­neous? We are, from the out­set, arrang­ing the words and their mean­ings in con­scious pat­terns, even at our most free form. We are mechan­ics. Our tools are syn­tax and arrange­ment, our mate­ri­als are words. We build a machine with hope. Though what we hope for is not always clear.

9) The last frag­ment that I meant to write was about the won­ders of the mechan­i­cal, the lack of a soul in the won­der­ful mechan­i­cal, and how easy this makes it to see the whole of the works. I’d only imply the con­verse: how dif­fi­cult it is to under­stand the liv­ing (souled) when so much is hid­den from us. But I was too busy won­der­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a mechan­i­cal bird that sings as well as the real thing.
————

End Note:
Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen wrote a fairy tale called The Nightin­gale (In Dan­ish the less love­ly sound­ing “Nat­ter­galen”) About an emper­or and the song of the nightin­gale… about a real bird and a mechan­i­cal bird.

Wikipedia dry­ly describes the charm­ing sto­ry thus:


The Emper­or of Chi­na learns that one of the most beau­ti­ful things in his empire is the song of the nightin­gale. When he orders the nightin­gale brought to him, a kitchen maid (the only one at court who knows of its where­abouts) leads the court to a near­by for­est, where the nightin­gale agrees to appear at court; it remains as the Emper­or’s favorite. When the Emper­or is giv­en a bejew­eled mechan­i­cal bird he los­es inter­est in the real nightin­gale, who returns to the for­est. The mechan­i­cal bird even­tu­al­ly breaks down; and the Emper­or is tak­en death­ly ill a few years lat­er. The real nightin­gale learns of the Emper­or’s con­di­tion and returns to the palace; where­upon Death is so moved by the nightin­gale’s song that he allows the Emper­or to live.

You can read the whole of the sto­ry with love­ly pic­tures by Edmund Dulac here.