"Hurt Hawks" is a narrative poem about a wounded hawk in free verse of 27 lines divided by the poet into two parts. Part I, which is 17 lines long, describes the setting of the poem in third person. Part II is 10 lines long, written in first person, and comprises the resolution of the carefully constructed tension set up in Part I. Some critics feel that Part II is sufficiently different in style and focus that it was originally an altogether separate poem (see below). Succinct yet lyrical, elegaic yet harsh, Hurt Hawks is, like the hawk that is the center of the poem, fiercely and unrelentingly an advocate of the natural - as opposed to the civilized - world. Hawks held a special place in Jeffers' heart, whether it be this poem or the longer "Cawdor," "Give Your Heart to the Hawks" (the name of a 1933 collection of his poetry), or "Hawk Tower," the edifice that he built for his family in 1920 on Carmel Point in California.
Part I sets the stage for the action in Part II, an Ecce Homo stage where the Homo is an injured hawk living in and around the poet—who makes clear, however, that the hawk is not a prisoner, either in the poet's eyes or its own. The poem opens with:
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days:
Midway through Part II, Jeffers notes that
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
This poem is arguably not only Jeffers' most famous poem but often the only one still taught, when Jeffers is taught at all, in undergraduate courses. One reason for the inclusion of this poem in the curriculum is the famous first line of Part II, "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk." Aside from its popularity and this rather striking sentiment, the poem has proved a fertile source of discussion amongst critics for other reasons. First is the striking shift in voice from Part I to Part II, leading some to state that this poem was welded together from two distinct poems. Secondly, the plural "Hawks" in the title is mysterious and unclear since there is only one hawk mentioned in the poem—or is there? One interpretation of the plural is that in fact Jeffers and his family harbored two hawks and only the second was killed. Tim Hunt feels the second injured hawk in the poem refers to the saddened, or emotionally hurt hawk, i.e., the poet of Part II.
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