There is a beguiling poem by Raymond Carver which, like many modern poems, though more cheerfully than some, spends most of its short life mulling over the conditions of its own possibility. 'A crow flew into the tree outside my window': the ingenuous opening line at once establishes Carver in a realm of the purest contingency, where things just happen to happen. The rest of the poem is about trying to stay there, to keep within the occasional and mundane and, above all, not to get all literary:
It was not Ted Hughes's crow, or Galway's crow.
Or Frost's, Pasternak's, or Lorca's crow.
Or one of Homer's crows, stuffed with gore,
after the battle. This was just a crow.
That never fit in anywhere in its life,
or did anything worth mentioning.
Just a crow: not, that is to say, a poetic crow, the sort worth writing about; and, after a few exemplarily unexceptional moments in the garden, the bird flies off 'beautifully/ out of my life'. In doing so, you might think, the crow has secured an unobtrusive yet decisive victory on behalf of the unpoetic and ordinary; but setting out to imagine happenstance can hardly yield such simple results. For all Carver's patient insistence to the contrary, nothing could be more literary, or possess a more purely symbolic interest, than this intently ordinary bird, and by the time it leaves the poem it has become unmistakably Carver's crow - something he knows perfectly well, and wryly insinuates in his title, 'My Crow' (other Carver poems are called 'My Boat' and 'My Work'). As Wallace Stevens put it in 'The Plain Sense of Things', 'the absence of the imagination had/Itself to be imagined.'
LRB 4 December 2003 | PDF Download