Animals, not just Homo sapiens, have reputations, justified or not, among Homo sapiens. Pandas and koalas: cute. Vultures and turkeys: hideous (though the latter’s reputation is ameliorated by its toothsomeness). For others, their place in the hierarchy is more ambiguous. Thoreau writes of barred owls, “Solemnity is what they express,--fit representatives of the night.” (Journals: Dec. 14, 1858) Yet the same creature is feared and turned into an object of cheesy superstition, a Halloween decoration. That’s what comes of being nocturnal and ferociously efficient as a predator. I like most of “The Owl” by Carl Rakosi, especially the surprise of the second stanza:
“His element is silent and inexorable.
Mack the Knife waits in his eyes,
yet he is generous and brings his young
eleven mice four bullheads
thirteen grouse two eels
three rabbits and a woodcock
all in one night
“Is it too much to expect of prose
to learn from the owl
his exact knowledge of his object,
his exact eyes claws wings
and be the scourge of rats?
It might, like him, then live to
sixty-eight years in the clear impersonal
and look wise and imperturbable.”
“Inexorable” is false, too emphatic. About “Mack the Knife,” my thoughts are mixed. Owls are savage, not sociopathic, and for Americans, at least, Mack the Knife has more to do with Armstrong and Darin than Brecht and Weill. I like the hunting inventory – not overstated – and wonder where Rakosi pulled the details. “Generous” is too anthropomorphic but the abruptly introduced comparison with prose is breathtaking, worthy of Thoreau and Davenport. What can writers of prose emulate in the owl?
“Exact knowledge of his object”: I take it the writer’s object is the world. “His exact eyes claws wings” – that is, words, our tools. “And be the scourge of rats?” Rats are those who deny, distort or obscure truth. The writer is predator, truth is the prey. Robert D. Richardson gives us this in First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process:
“Choosing words and using words are the central inescapable acts of writing. `No man can write well who thinks there is any choice of words for him. [By choice here Emerson means a group of acceptable words, any one of which he could choose.] The laws of composition are as strict as those of sculpture and architecture. There is always one right line that ought to be drawn or one proportion that should be kept and every other line or proportion is wrong….So in writing, there is always a right word, and every other that is wrong.’”