Blue Umbrellas (D.J. Enright)


Blue umbrellas

by D. J. Enright

‘The thing that makes a blue umbrella with its tail – 
how do you call it?’ you ask. Poorly and pale 
Comes my answer. For all I can call it is peacock. 
Now that you go to school, you will learn how we call all sorts of things; 
How we mar great works by our mean recital. 
You will learn, for instance, that Head Monster is not the gentleman’s accepted title; 
The blue-tailed eccentrics will be merely peacocks; the dead bird will no longer doze 
Off till tomorrow’s lark, for the letter has killed him. 
The dictionary is opening, the gay umbrellas close. 
Oh our mistaken teachers! – 
It was not a proper respect for words that we need, 
But a decent regard for things, those older creatures and more real. 
Later you may even resort to writing verse 
To prove the dishonesty of names and their black greed – 
To confess your ignorance, to expiate your crime, seeking one spell to 
life another curse. 
Or you may, more commodiously, spy on your children, busy discoverers, 
Without the dubious benefit of rhyme. 

Art by Corrie Haffly.

I am a great lover of finding the precise word for a thing. One of the great joys of a voluminous vocabulary is that it can (sometimes) say the exact thing you want to say.

Except when it can’t.

That’s what I like about this poem: it hints at why poetry has a place for people like me: because while the word peacock is precise, it doesn’t at all capture the majesty of the bird. The thing with blue umbrellas in its tail is really so much better. “A decent regard for things, those older creatures and more real” trumps “a proper respect for words”.

And so maybe we do need poets, “to prove the dishonesty of names”. Because, perhaps there are things poems can say that prose just can’t. The truest and most beautiful things are perhaps slippery: they can be pointed at, but not pinned. As my friend Karen wrote in a comment on the first day of this #PoemADay adventure, “poetry sneaks in under the skin, right to bone and marrow, sinew and cell. It sticks with you long after the reading.”

And she’s right. Because I first read this poem twenty five years ago, and yet I still knew how to find it. I googled “the one with the blue umbrellas”…. 🙂

P.S. Can someone help me understand this line: “the dead bird will no longer doze
Off till tomorrow’s lark, for the letter has killed him”?