Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Crows in a Winter Composition"

Matthias Schubnell is right to suggest in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background that Momaday's "Crows in a Winter Composition" strikes a Stevensian note. While "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" presents an obvious parallel, "The Snow Man" also suggests a way of getting into the poem.

The speaker in Momaday's poem is a scarecrow (if not literally, at least figuratively) and occupies a position similar to Stevens's snow man. In the first stanza, he embodies Stevens's claim that "one must have a mind of winter" to not find misery in the barren land. He is the listener, who "nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." For him, "The several silences,/ Imposed one upon another,/ were unintelligible." He is able to differentiate several silences as they are placed against one another-it does not all collapse into a single silence-but these silences are still unintelligible. It begs the questions: when is silence intelligible? And to whom? These silences are neither intended nor appreciated. There is no "misery in the sound of the wind,/ In the sound of a few leaves" as in Stevens's poem. The landscape is absolutely still. It is, as the title suggests, "a Winter Composition."

As such, the landscape is an unfulfilled expectation. The poem opens with a dependent clause, "This morning the snow/ The soft distances/ Beyond the trees/ In which nothing appeared-" but the clause is left unanswered except for the repetition that "Nothing appeared." Nothing follows nothing and is fulfilled by nothing. As readers, we are placed in a similar position of the speaker who waits for something that does not come.

However, on the other side of the white space-a space that is not unlike the snowy landscape of the poem-is a second stanza. Into this second stanza, the crows came "whirling down and calling." They appear, but they do so when they are no longer expected. In addition to alluding to a long tradition of bird poetry, the American Crow, or Common Crow, in being entirely black, contrasts starkly with the snow (as black letters contrast with white space) and break the composition of the previous stanza.

The crows place the speaker "ill at ease." He is uncomfortable and quite literally ill, or a victim of evil, in his calm inactivity. This is because, in addition to breaking the serenity of the winter scene, crows are carrion birds. They feed on death. They announce to the speaker a winter misery that has previously gone unacknowledged.

The second part of the second stanza is problematic. The lines, "and stood in a mindless manner/ On the gray, luminous crust,/ Altogether definite, composed,/ In the bright enmity of my regard" can refer both to the birds and to the speaker. In referring to the birds, the lines suggest that the crows are subject to the gaze of the speaker, to his "regard"(in the same way that Stevens's snow man can "regard the frost and the boughs"). They can be incorporated into the scene.

If, however, the lines refer to the speaker, then it is he who is "definite, composed." The "mindless manner" is his, not the crows' (who, after all, are incredibly intelligent birds and ones capable of mimicking human speech). In this manner, the speaker becomes a part of the winter composition; he is an object, to be regarded by nature's own "bright enmity." It is in this way that the last line can be understood. In contrast with the "soft distances," the "hard nature of crows" is close. Close enough, in fact, to threaten the speaker's own nature.


Copyright © 2004 by Bart Brinkman


Title Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Crows in a Winter Composition" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bartholomew Brinkman Criticism Target N. Scott Momaday
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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