It seems John Updike never met Mia McPherson. If he had, he might have titled his poem differently.
Five years ago, Mia — a consummate bird photographer based in Utah — took upon herself the task of correcting just about everyone’s propensity for misnaming gulls. In a post titled “For The Love Of All That’s Birdy, There Is No Such Thing As A Seagull,” she made her point with the help of a few sign-holding gulls. As she wrote:
One of the things that make my feathers ruffle is when I see people post a bird photo and call it a “seagull,” because there is no such thing as a seagull.
Under just the Genus Larus we have Pacific gull, Belcher’s gull, Olrog’s gull, Black-tailed gull, Heermann’s gull, Mew gull, Ring-billed gull, California gull, Great black-backed gull, Kelp gull, Cape gull, Glaucous-winged gull, Western gull, Yellow-footed gull, Glaucous gull, Iceland gull,
Thayer’s gull[We said goodbye to Thayer’s gull this year not because they went extinct but because they were lumped with Iceland gulls], European herring gull, American herring gull, Caspian gull, Yellow-legged gull, East Siberian herring gull, Armenian gull, Slaty-backed gull, Lesser black-backed gull, and Heuglin’s gull.
Not included in any of their names is “seagull.”
Despite the passage of time, I’ve never forgotten Mia’s post. Most of the time, I remember to call birds in the genus ‘gulls,’ but poets — W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg among them — aren’t ornithologists, and most of them found ‘seagull’ a perfectly acceptable term.
That said, Updike’s poem “Seagulls” does begin by referring to “a gull,” just before it veers into a suggestion of gullability among humans. Updike could be remarkably clear-eyed when it came to categorizing human foibles, and he was no less so when it came to the gulls; his descriptions of the bird are creative and on point.
Had they met, I don’t think Mia would have chastised Updike for using one of her least favorite misnomers, but she might have whispered, “By the way, John — you might consider changing your title.”
A gull, up close,
looks surprisingly stuffed.
His fluffy chest seems filled
with an inexpensive taxidermist’s material
rather lumpily inserted. The legs,
unbent, are childish crayon strokes—
too simple to be workable.
And even the feather-markings,
whose intricate symmetry is the usual glory of birds,
are in the gull slovenly,
as if God makes too many
to make them very well.
Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump
all suggest deskwork: shipping rates
by day, Schopenhauer
by night, and endless coffee.
At that hour on the beach
when flies begin biting in the renewed coolness
and the backsliding skin of the after-surf
reflects a pink shimmer before being blotted,
the gulls stand around in the dimpled sand
like those melancholy European crowds
that gather in cobbled public squares in the wake
of assassinations and invasions,
heads cocked to hear the latest radio reports.
It is also this hour when plump young couples
walk down to the water, bumping together,
and stand thigh-deep in the rhythmic glass.
Then they walk back toward the car,
tugging as if at a secret between them,
but which neither quite knows—
walk capricious paths through scattering gulls,
as in some mythologies
beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
among our mortal apprehensions.
“Seagulls ” ~ John Updike