Poems About Owls

The path was purple in the dusk.
I saw an owl, perched,
on a branch.
Excerpt from “The Owl” by Arthur Sze

The Owl is one of those animals who have a mixed history with humankind.  The Mayans considered the owl a symbol of death, and Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, often wore owl feathers in his headdress.(1) In Japan, the owl is said to bring good luck and protection from suffering.(3In Ancient Greece, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, was often depicted with an owl.  This owl symbolized great knowledge and allowed Athena to see the truth.(2) 

This unique bird with its nocturnal lifestyle and distinct appearance, along with its connection to a variety of legends and folklore, has made it the perfect subject for poetry from across the ages.


Owls in Haiku

In the1800s, the Japanese poet Issa wrote a several owl haiku.  Below are a few examples.

the owl is happy
in his solitude...
autumn dusk
-Issa
in the owl's opinion
every day
is long
-Issa

In 1973, Alan Watts wrote this haiku about an owl.

Owl at night
is always sound,
not sight
-Alan Watts

Athena’s owl also found her way into this 1965 haiku by Marjory Bates Pratt.

Athene’s small owl is there, 
perched on a column 
in ruined Ephesus. 
-Marjory Bates Pratt

Owls in Long Form Poetry

The legend of the wise old owl, which began back in Ancient Greece, was brought forward into modern culture with this childhood rhyme.

A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

This nursery rhyme was first published in 1875.  At that time its last line was, “O, if men were all like that wise bird”(4). Over the years,  the rhyme has gone through some revision including this adaptation for national security during World War II. 

Owl as National Security

In 1863, Emily Dickinson wrote her owl poem that begins with a reference to the wise nature of the owl, and then shifts to an actual encounter with an owl.

“The Judge is like the Owl” – by Emily Dickinson

The Judge is like the Owl –
I’ve heard my Father tell –
And Owls do build in Oaks –
So here’s a Amber Sill –
 
That slanted in my Path –
When going to the Barn –
And if it serve You for a 
House –
Itself is not in vain –
 
About the price – ’tis small –
I only ask a Tune
At Midnight – Let the Owl
select 
His favorite Refrain –

Contemporary poet Susan Wood gives us this wonderful pairing of poetry and art called the “Dance of the Barn Owl”. 

The evening draws nigh and the stage is set,
An inspired portrayal awaits us yet.
The jet-black eyes search the ground,
While invisible ears, listen for sound.
Balletic moves and contours to see,
Floating feathers, airless and free.
Cavorting glides and swaying moves,
As night slowly ebbs, the dance improves.
Ghostly white owls float on the breeze,
Performing an encore draped by the trees.
We perceive the ballet for a fleeting time,
An accomplished performance: a vision sublime.
Dance of the Barn Owls -collage

Both Dickinson’s and Wood’s poems highlight the behaviors of the owl.  The gentle flight, the stoic perching, and the distinct call are all characteristics that make this bird so special.


To close out this exploration into owl poetry, I want to return to Issa.  The following haiku was written in 1816.

you too owl
dedicate a haiku...
this winter rain
-Issa

David G. Lanoue says that with this haiku, “Issa alludes to the death anniversary of the great poet, Bashô: Tenth Month, 12th day. On this day, every poet worth his salt composes a verse in Bashô’s honor–including, Issa jokes, an owl.” (5)

From this quick exploration, we can see that the owl plays an important part in our legends, folklore, and art. Their distinct features and mysterious habits have captured our attention. They can sometimes be signs of death, and sometimes they are signs of good luck. Sometimes, they can even write haiku!


Resources

  1. Learn Religions.com Mictlantecuhtli: God of Death in Aztec Religion
  2. GowiseOwl.com:What Does the Owl of Athena Represent?
  3. Owlcation: The Symbolism of Owls in Japan
  4. Wikipedia: Wise Old Owl
  5. David G. Lanoue: Issa Haikus

The Haikus from Alan Watts and Marjory Bates Pratt were sourced from “Owls: A Field Guide To North American Haiku” by Charles Trumbull first published in Frogpond volume 42.2

Issa’s haiku were found on Haikuguy.com.  This website holds a comprehensive list of Issa haiku translated and curated by David G. Lanoue.

Emily Dickinson’s “The Judge is Like an Owl” was found on Dickinson’s Birds

Susan Wood’s “Dance of the Barn Owl” can be found in her book Òran Uisge – Wildflower Meadow  or by visiting her website.  You can also read our interview with Susan Wood here.

“The Owl” by Arthur Sze can be found in his book The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems or at The Poetry Foundation

Inspired to buy a book mentioned in this post? Consider using the NaturalistWeekly’s Bookshop.org storefront. We are an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may receive a small commission if you buy a book from Bookshop.org.

25 thoughts on “Poems About Owls

Add yours

  1. Mark, really the enjoyed the owl theme today. It reminded me of my recent encounter with the eastern screech owl. I indeed found out that “the owl at night is always sound, not sight.”

    1. Hi Adele, thanks for the comment! It sounds like the owl encounter was interesting. Did you just hear it during the night, or were you able to see it? I pretty much only hear the owls.

  2. I didn’t realize the Mayans’ symbolism about owls — it’s interesting how cultures form a variety of meanings on something. And what lovely poetry in your post. The haiku are fantastic, and the children’s rhyme has wisdom that everyone, no matter what age, could use. To see and listen, to open yourself to what others and nature have to say.

    1. Hi Dave, I agree with your comment on the nursery rhyme. After I read it, I felt like I had heard it somewhere before. Although, I am not sure. Thanks for the comment. Have a good weekend.

    1. Hi Angellily, I am glad that you enjoyed this post. I always try to blend the facts with the poetry, I feel like it can add so much to the context for the poems. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Great post! I loved how you brought Dickinson into this, one of my favorite poets. She was remarkably learned in naturalism and brought great insight into her poems. Also I’d like to recommend this video which shows how unique Barn Owls are 🙂

  4. Great theme, Mark. Owls are wonderful birds! We often hear them calling during the night here.
    A special memory I have is of one evening, while out with the dogs, an owl glided towards me. At first it looked like it was heading right for me, but it effortlessly sailed over and above me. I hadn’t seen it until it was quite close. What an overwhelming feeling to experience what I felt to be a rare sight.
    Some time after that, I read a book called ‘I Heard The Owl Call My Name’ by Margaret Craven. It’s about a young Anglican priest who hasn’t long to live and who’s sent to the Indian village of Kingcome in the wilds of British Columbia. It had a great impact on me all those years ago. You’ve reminded me of it and I want to read it again.
    Owls are also special to me because they were my older brother’s favourite bird. 🙂

    1. What a wonderful encounter. How amazing that must have been to have the owl fly that close!
      That book sound really interesting. I may have to see if I can find it.
      Thanks for sharing! Have a good start to you week.

    1. There is research to be done here! I couldn’t figure this out at first, especially with the Beatles reference in the poem. But I got it! Thanks for sharing this.

      1. I’m glad you got it, Mark. 😀 I fell in love with Liverpool from my very first visit – not because of the Beatles association – but for the city itself. It’s a vibrant place with a lot of fascinating history. Since then, I’ve had a thing for the Liver (pronounced ‘lie-ver’ bird). For centuries, people have been guessing which bird it’s based on. The most likely one is the Cormorant.

  5. In my hometown, the cry of an owl near a house signified a looming death, especially when it’s repeated many times in a day for days. And when it cries from a large tree in a community, it’s believed to be a sign of a bad omen. But this belief is always a myth to me. An owl is a cute animal and shouldn’t be associated with something evil.

    1. Hi Florence, Thank you so much for sharing this. I knew that the owl was connected to other myths about being a signal of death or bad omens. The owl seems to be a little like the moth in that way, it can either be a positive or negative sign depending on the culture. Thanks again for sharing this.

  6. What a wonderful post, Mark. Whooo knew there were so many poems dedicated to wonderful owls? I especially loved Issa’s haiku:
    in the owl’s opinion
    every day
    is long

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