blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Crows in a Winter Composition"

Matthias Schubnell

"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.

from N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Copyright 1985 by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Jeff Sychterz

Since the Romantic period many poets have used nature as a source of poetic inspiration. In Romantic poetry nature often operates as both a window to and a pattern of an otherwise indescribable metaphysical Truth. Nature however never offers this access freely or easily. The poet must come to nature—in the right frame of mind—muse awhile and wait for that sublime or epiphanic moment. The moment is important; truth never seems to just be there, waiting on the trees like fruit ripe for the picking. The poet must feel like she or he worked hard for and earned a momentary glimpse of truth. This working hard leads us to the catch-22 of transcendence in the works of writers such as Emerson and Wordsworth, the poet must keep his or her mind free for nature to work on, but must also keep the imagination working at overcoming nature and wresting from it the prize of enlightenment. The poet must be prepared to make the imaginative leap from material nature to ethereal Truth. What may seem at first as a minimization of human importance in the face of nature thus becomes another instance of human mastery of nature, albeit on a non-material transcendent plane. This Romantic trope of imaginative transcendence over nature (where nature can serve to only take us so far) continues to dominate much nature poetry to this day.

A number of modern American poems however illustrate not the triumph of the imagination but instead its failure to bring about the epiphanic moment. Some seem to suggest that human nature cannot grasp whatever truth may lie hidden, others that no metaphysical truth exists, and others—such as the poems of A. R. Ammons—that the very lack of a deeper order and metaphysical truth is exactly the transcendent truth offered us by nature. Of this eclectic group of poems, N. Scott Momaday’s “Crows in a Winter Composition” has one of the most complex and enriching of imaginative failures, despite the poem’s deceptively simple narrative of some noisy crows interrupting an epiphanic moment.

The crows certainly seem like a random insertion, an unfortunate addition to this silent winter morning. The scene is ripe for transcendence: the time is morning, the air is silent and the snow obliterates the hard contours of nature. All seems ready to blur and slip from material reality into a metaphysical realm lying between the silences and maybe even just under the crust of snow. The speaker’s mind is free to begin working, to take a Wordsworthian imaginative journey beyond nature and into another reality of luminous truth (the kind of journey that would lengthen the poem into a several page philosophic event). Therefore the reader feels just as uneasy at the sudden appearance of crows that break the silence with their cacophony of calls, and interpose themselves between the epiphanic promise and us. Not only are they an unwanted addition to the scene, they seem utterly unconcerned with the solemnity of the moment; they stand not only “in a mindless manner” but also right on the very source of transcendence, the “luminous crust.” This act could be compared to a group of boisterous punks deciding to hang out in a church during Sunday morning observances. No wonder the speaker regards them with “bright enmity.”

But the crows differ from the punks in one crucial way: unlike the rowdy punks who would be utterly out of place in a quiet church, the crows are of nature and belong to the world of the silent snowy morning. So the crows are less an interruption by an external agent, then an interposition by nature itself. Even the title suggests that the crows are part of the composition just as the snow or silence, maybe even more so. The title could be for a painting in which the snow and silence serves merely as background for the birds. The setting of the first stanza then exists only in relation to the crows, and not as a separate material reality.

This leaves the reader with the sneaking suspicion that the crows are a purposeful interruption by nature, a Deus ex Machina brought in at just the right moment to break up any possible revelation of truth. The crows seem almost sinister, and the poem enhances this feeling by using the word “enmity,” which is often used to refer to a mutual hatred between two parties. So the second to last line could also indicate that the crows respond to the speaker’s “regard” with reciprocal hatred, as if they felt not only a greater claim to this winter morning but also indignation at the outsider who challenges that claim. The crows are also the enemies of his regard—enmity and enemy both sharing the same Middle English genealogy—in that they repel his attempts to integrate them into the scene on his own terms. Thus nature, through the crows, actively and purposefully resists the human imaginative faculty.

But perhaps “purposeful” is too strong of a word because the rowdy birds are not even ravens—the ubiquitous tricksters of many Native American myths and legends—so their interruption does not bring with it the comfortable structure of mythology to order our experiences. No the birds are simple common crows blundering through the solemn scene, without even the mindfulness of rational thought or a godlike task to keep human beings from discovering Truth. Yet nevertheless their insertion utterly closes the passageway between the physical and metaphysical world with their “definite, composed” materiality and “hard nature.” The weight of the physical crows seems to hold down the “luminous crust” and keep it from bursting forth under the gaze of the intuitive speaker.

That assumes, however, that the speaker was on the verge of an epiphanic moment; if we step back and look at the first stanza again other possibilities reveal themselves. The speaker tells us “nothing appeared” and immediately repeats the statement “Nothing appeared.” Rather than indicating the appearance of a transcendent vision, the speaker could possibly be registering his frustration at the lack of an epiphany. Even the “Therefore” beginning the second stanza can be read as referencing that frustration. The speaker could have already been “ill at ease” due to his failure when the crows arrived. The crows then serve a  a scapegoat; through the image of the crows feet on the “luminous crust” the speaker retrospectively blames the failed epiphanic moment on the arrival of the crows.

Perhaps the crows interrupt not a moment of transcendence but a Zen-like moment of unintelligibility. Perhaps the importance of this moment is not the triumph of the human imagination, but exactly its defeat. The speaker ends the first stanza by telling us that the silences “Were unintelligible.” The moment is precious because the speaker’s ego is shattered by a silence that takes on weight, and is in fact “several silences, / Imposed one upon another.” The speaker is indeed drawn out of the material world, and out of his own mind, but not given a vision of some transcendent truth. Instead nothing happens, nothing appears; everything is reduced to nothing and silence, including the speaker. All that is left is the Freudian pleasure of overwhelmed ego boundaries. The crows break this reverie and therefore bring an end to pleasure.

I am unwilling to give preference to any of the above possible readings, feeling instead that the poem puts all these possibilities in motion in a Haiku-like fashion. In fact the poem seems to fit the definition of its own title “Crows in a Winter Composition” not only because of its composite meanings but also because the poem itself is a composite of European (Romantic and Modern use of imagery), Japanese (the meditative Haiku form), and Native American (Animism and nature mythology) influences. From several different perspectives this remarkable poem presents a nature that maintains its integrity in the face of human imaginative mastery.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Bart Brinkman

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


Return to N. Scott Momaday