Birds of the same feather fly together: Kelwyn Sole on birding and poems

By CityLife Arts Writer

This month, as the world celebrates World Migratory Bird Day (Saturday, 8 October), the AVBOB Poetry Project celebrates a brilliant, challenging new collection by Kelwyn Sole, an award-winning poet and keen bird watcher, with a particular love of pelagic birding. Emeritus Professor at UCT, Sole focuses his fierce attention on the non-human world in his poetry.

Sole’s work has always reflected the precariousness of existence, exploring the discontent simmering beneath the surface of contemporary South Africa. Several of the most moving poems in his eighth collection, Skin Rafts, (Hands On Books 2022) are concerned with more ancient landscapes – with birds and the serpents who prey on them. In “My Country” he expresses a desire to speak of “the ugly creatures – / their recurring droughts of fulfilment…”

Sole says about his work, “One of the poet’s principal roles is to try to understand those parts of our surroundings and consciousness that are ill-regarded; to look into the darkest corners. I’m fascinated by questions like: who cannot speak? What is not being spoken about? Who is speaking on behalf of whom? There’s no final resolution possible for such concerns, but that doesn’t alter the need to keep asking them.”

The creatures in his poems occasionally seem to have human characteristics: in one poem a man asks directions from a bird, who comments, “Always / your song’s in tatters: / for everything of yours wants to stand still.”

“That bird is ‘telling’ the birder how little he can understand of a bird’s existence – and those humans include the poem’s readers and, if you think about it, me as I’m writing the poem,” explains Sole.

He cautions, “It doesn’t mean I, or anyone else, can begin to understand non-human perceptions and intelligence. Not at all. There’s been some interesting scientific work and popular writing, especially recently, on the amount and ways in which animal senses and experiences might exceed and differ from ours. For instance the most intelligent animal on earth, so far as we know, is a bird – the New Caledonia Crow, a creator and manipulator of tools. Our own Green-backed Heron is a fisherman, dropping flies in the water. It’s time we learned to value our fellow inhabitants on this planet and recognise their age-old wisdoms.”

Sole adds, “In bird watching, you can prepare yourself by studying birds by reading, and so on: however, you can do this all you like at home, but a lot of the learning happens when you’re out in the veld with binoculars and sore feet … that milieu where there’s no guarantee what will happen – whether there’ll be birds, no birds, or what birds might come into view.

“Analogically, in poetry what’s required is not only practising one’s skill in front of the computer or page, but also trying to put oneself in a position to experience some of the lives of others. Moreover, you can’t make the poem come on demand – you rewrite, you let it churn around in your subconscious … and if and when it eventually does pop up (sometimes when you least expect it) it has a maddening tendency to head off in unexpected directions. That’s great! Put simply: both poem and bird appear on their own terms. To me, that’s the exhilaration, how you acquire the craft – not the ‘finished’ poem product, or the new bird sighting ticked.”

These, then, are poems that celebrate uncertainty. They remind us of the ways we are all “bobbing / on our raft of skin.” And, as Sole points out, being at sea in a small boat is frightening but also invigorating.

.Where are the poems that appeared on their own terms in your notebook? The AVBOB Poetry Competition welcomes the words that perched on the railing of your creativity! Entries close at 23:59 on 30 November 2022. Register now at

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