Matthias Schubnell: On "Crows in a Winter Composition"

"Crows in a Winter Composition" is another of Momaday's meditations on the land which reveals his position on the value of the human imagination. The first stanza presents a scene of emptiness and silence, a landscape devoid of definition, content, and depth. The observer's response is not explicit, but it appears to have been a sense of mystification, of dissolution of the self in a realm outside of space and time. In much the same way as the line of cormorants in "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" reminds the poetic persona of his existence in time, the abrupt intrusion of the crows into the winter composition interferes with and brings to an end the protagonist's absorption in an indefinite and unintelligible scene. This reminder of the observer's existence in a world of well-defined, concrete reality results first in a feeling of being "ill at ease" and then in hostility: "The crows . . . stood in a mindless manner, / on the gray, luminous crust, / altogether definite, composed, / in the bright enmity of my regard, / in the hard nature of crows."

Inasmuch as the landscape is a void, it is threatening to man as a rational creature because it deprives him of any frame of reference. Conversely, the "mindless" crows are firmly integrated and at home in this dimension. However, by its very lack of definition the scene is charged with infinite possibility and potential, posing, as the clearly defined crows cannot, a challenge to the human imagination.

Momaday seems to be playing here with the tension between the real and the ideal, between a well-defined, ordered, and concrete reality which is intelligible but ultimately dull and an abstract, vague dimension which is incomprehensible yet appealing to the observer's imagination. In suggesting a bias toward the supremacy of the imagination over reality, Momaday strikes a Stevensian note. The poem's setting resembles that of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." And his lines "The several silences, / Imposed one upon another" are reminiscent of Stevens's reference to the earth as "the mute, the final sculpture / around which silence lies on silence."

The protagonist's temptation to indulge in a realm of pure imagination is tempered only by his admission that this dimension is ultimately beyond reason. It is possible that, on one level of this poem, Momaday has dramatized one of Winters's central concerns, the relation between poetic imagination and reason. If Momaday is the poem's persona, then he is drawn strongly toward the ideal, reality having only limited appeal to him.


Title Matthias Schubnell: On "Crows in a Winter Composition" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Matthias Schubnell Criticism Target N. Scott Momaday
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 27 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background
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