CROW: FROM THE LIFE AND SONGS OF THE CROW

I suck at keeping my blog up to date and relevant. So, today, I bring the big guns out with a review penned for a scholarship interview, and for what is one of my favourite books.

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★★★★★

If I had to pick one poetry collection of Ted Hughes and watch the rest of his work burn, I would always pick Crow. This is a black book of carrion in both content and presentation, and it most certainly would not burn if rejected. It would shriek obscenities and tar the immediate surroundings with angry spittle of ink, the throbbing heart within the text still so furiously alive that it would be alarming to witness.

First published in 1970, Crow is a collection of poems centred on the mythical figure of the eponymous bird. Hughes, like Shelley’s Frankenstein, sews together his own monster here, bleeding in various creation myths and folklore into his crow, fleshing out this creature that faces God, Death and nature. This book is littered with hermetic resonances. In the majority of poems, Crow muses, trying to understand his relationship with all three elements. Death trips Crow up in one poem, so Crow is left dangling upside down in the position of the Hanged Man. In another, God tries to teach Crow to speak words, whilst in other poems Crow plays tricks on God in return. Nature violently confines Crow to the earth, standing him off against the sea in one poem, leaving Crow an insignificant speck.

Hughes is well known for his tooth-and-claw poetry. In his first published book Hawk in the Rain, he presents the reader with a variety of animals and takes on the role of a shaman. We see Hughes fastening the strings to affix symbolic masks of each animal on his face. Crow goes beyond this. Though the first Crow poems were a response to Leonard Baskin’s drawings of crows, Hughes carried on writing. Reading the poems in this collection feels as if a crow has taken possession of Hughes’ soul, or maybe Hughes has invited the soul of a crow within his own body, ‘[…] inside him, like a steel spring / Slowly rendering the vital fibres’. The effect produced in tone is that of a damning cry, or an echoing fit of laughter in the darkness. It presents the world at the bleakest moment when a person looks in the mirror to see not himself, but a lurid joker smiling back, goading, “what, are you still here?”

This is Ted Hughes truly savage, and Crow is his gob of spit in the face of man, beauty, God and life. Whereas a hawk is a bird of prey that can be trained to hunt on behalf of man, a crow, in contrast, is popularly regarded as a bird of pestilence; more feral than ferocious. Nevertheless, the crow persists, endures, survives, and cackles heartily regardless of triumph or fall. So does Hughes’ Crow, becoming ‘the hierophant, humped, impenetrable’. Even though the poetic landscape is dark, there are moments of black humour which embody that aspect of resilience we admire. You have to love certain things for their resilience rather than their beauty. A warning, though, if you love for beauty, you cannot love this book.

BONUS MATERIAL:

  1. Am I the only person who can spot crow related references in Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers? Esther Woolfson, Keith Sagan… Remember the jive about there being a set number of pop culture references in Vanilla Sky? Can the same game be made out of Porter’s book with all related references? On that note, if you like this, read Max Porter’s book. If you don’t like this, then still read Grief is the Thing with Feathers. If you didn’t like Grief is the Thing with Feathers then why are you reading this?!
  2. In a previous version of this review, this made up the beginning, and naturally was too unsuitable for a review outside the realm of GoodReads:

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only member of the Crow Appreciation Society in my immediate circle of friends and colleagues. They just don’t get crows/corvids in general, most people don’t. So, off the top of my head, five reasons why crows should finally get a little respect from you peasants:

  • Crows can distinguish one human from another and remember their faces. This is my number 1 as it was a hard lesson for me to learn. My dad took me away on holiday when I was six and I thought it’d be really big and clever to lob a cob of sweetcorn at a young crow bullying a sparrow. Not such a hot idea. You might not be able to tell one crow from another and a knock on the chin is just that, but they can tell you apart and are pretty much Liam Neeson from Taken if you mess with one of them. I was chased all afternoon by a whole family of them and couldn’t go outside in that field for the rest of the holiday. Don’t fuck with crows.
  • Type ‘Caledonian crow’ in YouTube and watch lots of videos of crows solve problems in experiments with reasoning and tool-use. There’s also the famous video of crows dropping nuts so cars can smash them open and using the traffic light system to safely collect their goods.
  • Then stay up until 5am watching videos of talking crows. Not just parrots who imitate speech, certain corvids like ravens and crows do as well. I think there actually is a video of a raven saying ‘nevermore’. The one that freaks me out is the injured crow suddenly exclaiming ‘I wanna fly, FLY!’ – don’t watch this at 5am.
  • They’re sly. Crows who have stolen from other crows will hide their food in better places next time. So, basically, you swindle over another crow and then learn from this experience in order to be better equipped in keeping food stores of your own.
  • Not really crow, but still corvid related: magpies (I think) are one of the few animals to identify themselves in a mirror. Maybe it’s because of Lacan’s mirror theory and self-identification as a topic I find this particularly interesting.

(As for corvid facts mentioned above: everything is true and nothing is verified when you research topics at 5am.)

3. I did receive the scholarship for this review.

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About SZ

Like dice in mid-air.
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