In praise of crows

Littérateurs will have already spotted that the name of this blog is stolen from the great American poet Wallace Stevens. In his poem ‘Invective Against Swans’, Stevens has a dig at those lovely birds, bringing them down a peg by calling them 'ganders’ (which are actually male geese), dismissing their 'bland motions’. I suspect Stevens had no serious gripe against swans; nor do I. They are decorative, they transform a landscape into a painting, they make me hum Tchaikovsky to myself. But stick them into a poem, specifically a contemporary poem, and they become a metaphor for all that is trite and precious. And that’s Stevens’ beef, all those 'white feathers’ and 'chilly chariots’. There he was, facing a newish century, a brave new world that had shaken itself out of a war; a new poet trying to find a new way of saying things. He is railing against the grandiose, the clichéd, the humourless. Never one to miss a joke: 'gander’ is also colloquial in boon dock Florida for 'a quick glance’, as in 'get a gander of that’; also colloquial for the village simpleton, as idiotic as a goose. And as we’re talking specifically about a 'male goose’, could the poet be referring back to himself, possibly to all his fellow bards (how close that is to 'birds’!) as well?

Anyhow, enough of a gander at ganders. I write in praise of crows. Stevens liked crows, you can tell. They get the best line in the poem, the greatest honour: 'the crows anoint the statues with their dirt’. A swan is only graceful when it’s gliding on water; on land, it’s a clumsy, big-footed lug. But there’s something honest about a crow, it has a certain butch integrity. Think of Hughes’ King of Carrion in his palace of skulls, the Twa Corbies of the ballad, Poe’s harbinger of death (ok, so he’s a raven, but that’s really just a big crow). The crow seems a more appropriate metaphor for our world at the beginning of this newish century: a bird that can be seen to represent doom, but is also intelligent, resourceful; a bird that resides and thrives in both countryside and urban centres; a bird that is beautiful, albeit in a beleaguered way.

So poets, here is your brief: less swan, more crow.

And I haven’t even touched upon the blackbird …