A Barred Owl (illustrated) #vizpoem

As an example of the Defining the Genre illustration exercise, here is a lovely doubly-voiced poem by Richard Wilbur called “A Barred Owl.” There is a story being told here, but it is not the main emphasis of the poem. Were I to paraphrase what’s going on,  I might say that a parent, having just consoled his daughter after a loud owl’s hoot came through the window, meditates on how words can give a human face to startlingly inhuman noises or events.

I know it’s not on the list of poems for this week, but it presents some interesting challenges for illustration that also happen to coincide with questions of genre.

As we found out for this week’s second twitter convo, we all think really differently about poems! If I had to choose one image to represent “Westron Wind,” I might choose a still from Tommy Boy, which is the one I tweeted. But while that got across the speaker’s frustration that the wind isn’t blowing, the scene features Chris Farley’s character and his lady friend, so it’s not a perfect image at all! In fact, it would probably throw off some of you if you were trying to guess.

Let’s say I illustrate “A Barred Owl” with an image of a barred owl, which is an actual animal, for realsies:

This thing is ginormous.

This thing is ginormous.

It’s not a bad image at all, especially if I were aiming to convey what scared the little girl in the first place. But the owl’s hoot happens before the poem begins, or at least before the voice starts speaking — he has already comforted his daughter, and is now just meditating on what happened. This picture doesn’t get at the pun in the title (that the barred owl has been “barred” from the girl’s bedroom by her parent’s comforting white lie), and it has nothing at all to do with the distinction that has been drawn between what happens outside, in the wild, and what happens inside (hopefully nothing, so that they can all get back to bed). And I’m not even sure I would want to affix it to the start of the poem (why the girl is frightened) or to the end of the poem (when her father notes to himself that although he told her the owl was really just curious about her personal chef, it actual is a merciless killer of “some small thing in [its] claw, / Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw”).

Luckily, you’re not limited to one image. I suggest you make a bulleted list of the sorts of emotional responses the poem triggers, in the order that it triggers them, and then find somewhere between three and seven pictures to correspond to what you’re thinking. We’ll have lots of chances to get this right, and as the weeks go by I’ll be challenging you to find different ways of expressing your interpretations through illustration. Also, don’t forget it’s not the pictures alone that are conveying what you thought about the poem, but your words too — out of their interplay, if we do this correctly, anybody who comes along and views your blog ought to be able to understand what you were responding to in the poem, and why. No guesswork necessary!





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