John Kinsella had an essay a couple of years ago in Australian Book Review called “Parrotology: On the Necessity of Parrots in Poetry.” I had not even realized that parrots were considered a tired trope of Australian poetry, but Kinsella explains both that and the necessity (as he sees it) of retaining the parrot as “an addictively necessary part of a poetics.” It’s an enjoyable read:

Despising nation and patriotism and jingoism as I do, I baulk when I hear that ‘parrots’ are clichés or overused symbols of Australia, particularly the outback. I have a personal history of parrotology, a deep respect for all their varieties, and a fascination for their manifestations in literature, particularly poetry. For me, a parrot isn’t simply a parrot. In the thrust forward to make of Australian poetry some-thing more cosmopolitan, internationalist and sophisticated, there’s been some throwing of the baby out with the bathwater. Arguments of literary maturity are the old cultural cringe stuff reformed as residue, a bit like the cherishing of remnant bushland when all else is reduced to salinity. The parrot becomes a transitional object in this child-nation’s shift from linguistic acquisition to linguistic confidence and exploration.
Arguably, this exploration of linguistic possibilities in poetry — searching for new ways of expressing confidence in identity — is parallel to, or maybe even an extension of, the narratives of exploration that ‘opened up’ land for ‘settler’ use, and sought to reset the co-ordinates (namings, markings, topography and explication) of place, with the aim of creating ‘guilt-free’ occupation. It might well be, disturbingly, a new form of colonisation…

For example, how many anthologised Australian poems are about parrots, or even include parrots? How and when did they become figurative currency? Why the joy at not encountering them? First, we’d have to consider the demographics and cultural values of the judges. Are they urban people, for whom the parrot is a bland representation of the rural other — an expected trope that denies variety in all its guises? Is the parrot the Anglo-Celtic displacement of indigeneity, a kind of legitimising or reterritorialising of the sign? The rendering of the Derridean monster into something acceptable? The event defanged, or debeaked? By way of distraction, let’s think of Australian parrots as our version of the hippogriff.
We might ask of the cultural density and liberality of the city — real or desired — is everything therein not parrot? Interestingly, ‘pissed as a parrot’ applies as much to parrots in the north of Queensland consuming fermented fruit as to rainbow lorikeets dining on the fermented nectar of schotia brachypetala in the Sydney Botanical Gardens, so drunk they featured in the Sydney Morning Herald (2004) and wire pick-ups in newspapers around the world. In the gardens, beneath the drunken parrots, families of diverse spiritual beliefs, politics, social attitudes, ethnicities and cultural practices look up and take note. Some might be embarrassed, some make jokes at the expense of the parrots, some feel pity, even empathy. The parrot as symbol of nation falls off its perch.

Incidentally, the next line contained a word that confused me: “Chris Mansell’s ‘Definition Poem: Pissed as a Parrot’ is a poem of word slippage: ‘If the sheep’s fly-blown it’s a rosella.'” So far so good, but later he says “The parrot (oh, a rosella is a type of parrot)…” Well, which is it? A quick trip to the OED revealed that a rosella is both a parrot (or, to be exact, “A brightly coloured seed-eating Australian parakeet belonging to the genus Platycercus“) and “A sheep whose wool is beginning to fall off naturally, and which is therefore easy to shear.” And the word does not, as you might expect, come from Latin; it’s “App. for Rose-hiller, f. Rose-hill, Paramatta near Sydney.” Australia is full of surprises.


  1. John Emerson says

    I read Skelton’s “Speak Parrot” every few years. It’s a perfectly wonderful poem by a poet who suffers terribly from atypicality. There’s no pigeonhole for Skelton. (He also wrote a nice “Philip Sparrow” bird poem).
    Both Brazilian and Australian literature are influenced by the fact that all their common birds, animals, and plants are markedly different than those of the classical traditions from which they descend.

  2. John Emerson says

    Less on topic: parrots apparently not only imitate human speech but understand a lot of it, more than dogs do.

  3. John Emerson says

    In my customary spirit of helpfulness I’ll also suggest that Australian poets mightconsider writing more poems about platypodes and Giant Gippsland Earthworms.

  4. Oh, the Giant Gippsland Earthworm in Australia can be found;
    You can hear its “gurgle gurgle” in its burrows underground.

  5. I knew parrots had to be good for something besides shitting a lot, mocking you in your own voice in their hideous voices, shitting some more, being able to wake the dead sometimes with their sudden alarming shrieks, molting a lot, getting canker and eye sores a lot, shitting some more, having the ability to bite huge chunks of flesh out of your softer parts with their claw-like beaks, shitting some more, being able to eat with such recklessness the seeds they eat are scattered asunder throughout your house, shitting some more, molting some more, capable I assume of beaking out your eyes should they so desire and then squawkingly bragging about it with squeals of boring repetitions of “I’m such a good boy” in a voice you don’t recognize–I assume all “collected” parrots are males–aren’t the females sort of drab and shy?…and now I find out parrots are essential to Australian poetry! OK, score one for parrots. Still, I chorus the lover of the lovely Lenore who told the Raven, “Fly the hell off that bust, out that door, and come back from whence you came NEVERMORE.” My apologies to my parrot-loving friends–I still love them madly–and I’ve made one of their parrots a legend.
    Ur fiend,
    (incognito at the moment)

  6. Little-known fact: the Australian parrot is actually not a parrot at all; it is a member of the marsupial family. This marvelous example of adaptation is often seen in its native habit, the Australian poem.

  7. Terry Collmann says

    Surely the parrot’s usefulness to poets of any nationality is extremely limited, since the only word the bird rhymes with is carrot?
    Now, the parakeet on the other hand (or wing) …

  8. All poetical is the parakeet
    It goes so well with scones and skeet

  9. Typical bloody Aussies, whinging about poems full of parrots. At least they didn’t get stuck with Dennis Glover’s “Quardle Ardle Wardle Doodle” on magpies.

  10. “Platypodes” has the distinct advantage that it can be rhymed with “antipodes”.

  11. @Stuart: No kidding; awww, you have parrots. SOME places have William Topaz McGonagall.
    And try living in New England and not going on murderous rampage when someone even so much as mentions Robert Frost. I’ve heard that if you say his name three times in front of a mirror, he appears and sucks your brains out with forebrain-curdling insipidry.

  12. J. Del Col says

    The Monk Parakeet is now a well-established feral parrot in the eastern USA. It survives winters as far west and north as Chicago–a tough bird.
    We used to have a native parrot, the Carolina Parakeet. But the last one died in 1914, same year, and place,–the Cincinnati Zoo– as the last Passenger Pigeon.
    San Francisco is famous for its feral parrots, as are Miami and other places in Florida.
    The latest cladistic studies put falcons and parrots in the same group.

  13. “It survives winters as far west and north as Chicago–a tough bird.”
    If you want a tough bird, try the kea, the world’s only(?) alpine parrot. Just don’t leave your car unattended near one for too long! No Kiwi odes to this compulsive omnivore spring to my mind 🙂

  14. Terry Collmann says

    Here in West London we also have flocks of feral parakeets, of the ring-necked variety, which fly in green, squawking flocks over my house at dusk, and which (because they compete with native species of birds for nest-holes and the like – bloody immigrants, coming over here …) many people would prefer to see wrung-necked.

Speak Your Mind