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 …