Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 7, 2011

The Poetic Life, Mattie Stepanek & “The House Sparrow Hater”

House Sparrow

Exhibit A: The English Sparrow or House Sparrow, imported to the U.S. centuries ago to make our lives miserable.

For shame! I let a whole week go by before acknowledging here that it’s National Poetry Month again.



I dunno. Whadya think?

Poetry occupies such a strange place in postmodern, 21st century culture that I’m really not sure anymore how geeky and or honorable it is to be either an avid reader of poetry, or a writer of same.

For instance: I suspect that most of the best selling books of new poetry in the past 20 years were the 5 books published by the late Mattie Stepanek — a sweet tow-headed kid with muscular dystrophy, made famous in his several appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show. First off, I’m not intending to be mean here. Mattie’s poetry is fine, if a little cliche and overly sentimental at times. But he had talent. And guts. Nothing like staring death in the face since you were a toddler to give one access to the soul, which is what leads to some of the best poetry.

But let’s face it. Mattie was 13 when he passed away in 2004. How much does any 13-year-old understand about the universe? Furthermore, who’s actually buying, reading or promoting the grown-up poets of today?  Heck… the last poet laureate of the U.S. who I can name is Billy Collins, and that was from 2001 to 2003. And I’ve read about two of Billy’s poems. So if a poetry freak like me doesn’t follow the field that closely, I certainly don’t expect the general public to do so.

I’ve been writing poetry since I was a pre-teen. It’s just something I do. It’s how I’m put together, or maybe how I put the puzzle pieces together as I try to understand such a strange world. Writing poetry helps maintain a clean connection between my mind, my heart, and my senses. If I didn’t use this poetic Drano technique to express myself and clear the pipes every once in awhile, my internal pipes would probably back up and flood all sorts of bile and bull all over my house, my family, my friends, my life. And nobody wants to cleat THAT up.

However, I know poetry is an acquired taste. Having taught kindergarteners through senior citizens, in both the appreciation and the creation of a poem, it’s obvious to me there are two kinds of people: them that gets it, and them that don’t. Which is okay.

Ask me tomorrow, and I’ll probably be pissed off at them that don’t get it. But for today, they’re cool. Probably more practical and level-headed than all the poetical, idealistic, mystical whiner/cheerleaders like me. My sister Karen, for example, has similarly written poetry since she was young. My other sister Laura, meanwhile –the practical one, the one who got more of Dad’s genes– would much rather enjoy other people’s creative efforts than gaze at her own navel. Karen and I, on the other hand, can’t help ourselves… despite our navels being fairly ordinary.

Spencer, my best birding buddy

But “enough comedy jokes”, as Steve Martin once said. ( “Let’s get small…” ) Presented below is an original poem I wrote yesterday, probably as a way of clearing my head about all the other things pissing me off in my life that have nothing whatsoever to do with sparrows. Nothing like a scapegoat to set one’s mind at ease.



The House Sparrow Hater


Something there is in me

That does not like a sparrow.

All nervous energy and darting head movement,

Seemingly anxious, though any smarter bird

Would know there are no real predators

in this neighborhood for miles,

since the city cut down our Cooper Hawk’s favorite tree.


House Sparrow. Passer domesticus.

What is it about them,

these fieldmice of the skies?

Maybe because they are so common.

But then again so’s the American Robin,

And I like her just fine.

I enjoyed myself just this morning

Watching a robin in our locust tree,

So calm and careful,

Brawny and busy,

While Emily and Amy interpreted their own birdsongs

On the CD player in my car.

Then a flash in my peripheral vision,

And I turned to see two mated sparrows

In our little cherry tree.

The same two messy aggravators

now building a nest under my carport.


The crow–

who with his swagger loves to pick out

the highest branch on the tree to land upon and squawk–

does not bother me.

He’s like the Mick Jagger of the avian world.

I’m a Beatles man myself, though,

So I lean toward McCartney’s sweet cardinal song

And Lennon’s hovering, hunting golden eagle.


The starling–

though I know he doesn’t belong here,

and though I hate his mocking cackle,

(like the grackle) —

Nevertheless has flashy turquoise accents

within his jet-black plumage.

So starling can stay,

Though the dumb-ass Brits

who brought starlings here

Three hundred years ago

Should pay me reparations

For all the birdseed

these piggish punks gobble up.


The mourning dove

I would not mourn if it went away —

But it can stay.

The herons and larks and chickadees:

Give me a million and I will be pleased.


But that sparrow, like a virus, he got to go,

Even though Jesus loves him so.

For my own Christ said

not one sparrow falls dead

that He does not personally know.

Even so,

I would not mind

If my Lord protected

Some other kind.


by Mark Nielsen             4/6-7/11

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