Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The grackles sing avant the spring

Have you noticed that the birds are starting to activate these days?  I hear them cackling and whistling and calling just about every time I go outside.  Their sounds--a reaction, I'm sure, to the increased sunlight of March--are on some days the only thing capable of reminding me that spring is coming.  When I hear them, I think of the Wallace Stevens line, "The grackles sing avant the spring."

Common Grackle

Stevens, America's most distinguished poet of the twentieth century, lived on Westerly Terrace in Hartford's West End, within walking distance of my home in West Hartford. 

From Westerly Terrace, he regularly walked down Asylum Avenue to his job as an attorney for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, now the Hartford Insurance Group. He composed poems as he walked, and neighbors used to say that they would see him walk by at a  measured pace, stop, rock in his footsteps, and proceed.  When he arrived at work, he would dictate his poems for typing.

I figured if Stevens heard grackles avant (before) the spring, then grackle voices must be among those I'm hearing these past couple of weeks.  You can go to this site and listen and tell me whether you've heard anything like that outside these days.

I know I hear blue jays and cardinals.

This time of year, those crackly bird voices are to me a fragile crackly bridge across to greater sunlight and warmer weather.  If the birds are getting ready, then spring must be approaching.

Today I decided to look up the Stevens poem of which that line is a part.  I found this:

Snow and Stars
by Wallace Stevens

The grackles sing avant the spring
Most spiss-oh! Yes, most spissantly.
They sing right puissantly.

This robe of snow and winter stars,
The devil take it, wear it too.
It might become his hole of blue.

Let him remove it to his regions
White and star-furred for his legions, 
And make much bing, high bing.

It would be ransom for the willow
And fill the hill and fill it full
Of ding, ding, dong.

How do you like his expression of the sound the grackles make?  Spissantly--it's brilliant.  The man had a way with onomotopaeia.  And to rhyme "spissantly" with "puissantly"?  He's a combination of snooty and cuckoo, like Katharine Hepburn on LSD. 

And what the heck is "high bing"?  Is it the opposite of high dudgeon? Never mind--I know exactly what Stevens means when he tells the devil to take this robe of snow and winter stars because it might look good in his domain, and because his legions might like it. 

And yes--what a concept--let that robe of snow and stars be ransom for the willow.   Are you looking forward to seeing a few greening willows?  I am.

 Wallace Stevens' poetry is often obscure and his image enigmatic at best.  But he got it right about this late-winter Connecticut wish that the never-ending snow will stop and the willow will green.

P.S. Did you know that Stevens' wife Elsie was the model for the liberty head dime?

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