Wednesday, April 07, 2010

`His Exact Knowledge of His Object'

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.’”


Dave Lull said...

See "[an] owl in flight after prey" here:

William A. Sigler said...

I appreciate your identification of Rakosi’s ideal here as “the writer is predator, the truth is prey.” And I like the way that dovetails into Richardson’s distillation of the writing process. But I can’t help but read his poem as a symbolic diminishment of the writer’s role. With all the accumulated observations and symbolism about owls over thousands of years across immense cultural distances: owl as sage, protector, omen of death, predictor of weather, giver of warning, witch/wizard familiar, ruler of the night, keeper of order in the forest, all-seeing eye, keeper of secret knowledge, gateway to the underworld, embodied spirit of the elders, Rakosi selected as symbol for writing the most “prosaic” of its skills: its ability to hunt. He used this same quality in his depiction of how the white man appeared to the Indians (who of course view the owl as a highly important and spiritual animal): “His soul glared the way / an owl glares at / a covey of quail-chicks.
He had no mercy, / yet he said / there is a God.”

My favorite owl poem is “The Owl” by Ted Hughes, someone as comfortable and familiar with predatory birds as a poet can be. He conveys by understatement that most miraculous of owl qualities: eyes 5% of their body weight. Indeed, we can emulate in owls Emerson’s ideal transcendental eye:

“I saw my world again through your eyes
As I would see it again through your children's eyes.
Through your eyes it was foreign.
Plain hedge hawthorns were peculiar aliens,
A mystery of peculiar lore and doings.
Anything wild, on legs, in your eyes
Emerged at a point of exclamation
As if it had appeared to dinner guests
In the middle of the table. Common mallards
Were artefacts of some unearthliness,
Their wooings were a hypnagogic film
Unreeled by the river. Impossible
To comprehend the comfort of their feet
In the freezing water. You were a camera
Recording reflections you could not fathom.
I made my world perform its utmost for you.
You took it all in with an incredulous joy
Like a mother handed her new baby
By the midwife. Your frenzy made me giddy.
It woke up my dumb, ecstatic boyhood
Of fifteen years before. My masterpiece
Came that black night on the Grantchester road.
I sucked the throaty thin woe of a rabbit
Out of my wetted knuckle, by a copse
Where a tawny owl was enquiring.
Suddenly it swooped up, splaying its pinions
Into my face, taking me for a post.”

Fran Manushkin said...

There's a 24-hour camera in a Barn Owl's nest in an owl box near San Diego. Four owlets have hatched, and every night, starting at 11:00 eastern time (sunset there) you can see the male owl bringing in rats, gophers, and rabbits he's killed for their meals. The night before Easter he brought in a live rabbit, Not suitable for very young children during at night, but fine during the day. . The link is here:

Anonymous said...

Your tagging the vulture (“hideous”) reminded me of David Bottoms’ poem “Under the Vulture-Tree” that does such a beautiful job of inverting these dreaded birds into an embodiment of mercy. Took my breath away when I first read it, and opened my eyes to the beauty of a sight I’d been raised to vaguely resent: a V-shaped wingspan floating in the sky.