Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stubbornly beautiful: the black swans of poetry



Black swans, I’m inclined to believe, have become all the rage in the last couple of years: a film, a fascinating book (Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable) articles in the Barron’s online edition, and the list goes on.

So why not talk about black swans in poetry in this post?

Swans carry an ingrained symbolism, undoubtedly rooted in archetypes that these suave birds, their eerie appearance and a multi-layered cultural context evoke for us.

Some of the earlier swans in modern poetry appear to bring forth the closing of a chapter, a premonition of passage in an aura of wings as they take on the role of a go-between:
                
"The bird, on the dark lake where beneath it
The splendor of a starry & violet night
Lurks close, as a silvery vase amid diamond shades,
Sleeps tight, head under its wings, in between two horizon lines."

(Sully Prudhomme, The Swan)

One of the most enigmatic birds of this feather erupts in the verses of  Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “Sonnet”:

“This virgin, vivacious and beautiful thing
Will tear apart with a drunken wing slap
The hard lake that haunts from under the frost
The transparent glacier of flights not yet abandoned!”

Black swans per se appear in three magnificent contemporary poems.

These poems share a trait: they are set up as fantastic narratives whose main character is (aside from the black swan) a child.                        

Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem Black Swan talks of a secretive realm defined  boy and a black swan:

"...And a giant bird  
With burning feathers. And beyond them both  
A pond of incredible blackness, overarched
With ancient trees and patterned with shifting shades,  
The small wind in the branches making a sound
Like the knocking of a thousand wooden bells....  “

Randall Jarrell’s The Black Swan depicts a transformation which would fit well in a page from  Ovid's Metamorphoses:

"Out on the lake, a girl would laugh.
"Sister, here is your porridge, sister,"
I would call; and the reeds would whisper,
"Go to sleep, go to sleep, little swan."
My legs were all hard and webbed, and the silky

Hairs of my wings sank away like stars
In the ripples that ran in and out of the reeds."

And, stubbornly beautiful,  James Merrill’s poem The Black Swan "assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor", whose ending concludes our post:

"Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
       The blond child stands to gaze  
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon  
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
       Forever to cry aloud
    In anguish: I love the black swan."

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