“Crow Song” by Margaret Atwood is a satirical five stanza poem that does not follow a specific rhyme scheme and is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first contains seven, the second and third: nine, the fourth: six and the fifth: eleven. Within the text Atwood makes varied use of personification, giving the crows (who are used to represent human beings) the same abilities as humans.
Atwood makes use of a number of poetic techniques in ‘Crow Song’. A few of these are noted within the text of the analysis but one of the most obvious is repetition. This is seen through the use and reuse of words within one line, or in the form of anaphora. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, “and which” in the second stanza and “too many” in the third.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Crow Song
The poem begins with the speaker addressing her people, crows. They represent human beings and in their actions, human society. Throughout the poem the speaker uses the crows, and their wants and needs, to speak about the way human wants have been whittled down to the most primitive. Humanity is willing to follow anyone who speaks charismatically and promises food (meaning, prosperity) and the ability to gain more.
‘Crow Song’ ends on a distressing note as the speaker is also sucked into the realm she has been criticizing. She too is now in the bubble of wants, needs and politics.
Analysis of Crow Song
In the first stanza of ‘Crow Song’ Atwood’s speaker sets the scene. She is looking at “you,” meaning her “people” flocking and squabbling “In the arid sun, over the field”. With the heat of the sun beating down, and the state of the crops below (rotted) the scene is a fairly desolate one. The only life present is the group of crows that is after the one thing it can count on: food. This stanza drifts off with the repetition of “if”.
It’s a good idea to come back to this stanza after reading the next four and understanding Atwood’s perspective on crows and how she uses them to represent human beings. She is alluding to other ways human society could’ve come out “if” any number of things had gone differently.
In the second stanza the parallels between the crows and humanity are at the forefront. The speaker describes herself as wearing an “austere black uniform”. It is plain and serious. She stood and “raised the banner / which decreed Hope”. Through her action, she orders “Hope” into the world. With the enjambment of this line a reader has to move down quickly and one immediately discovers that her decree did network out. It “did not succeed”.
This is a symbol rich section of ‘Crow Song’ and it is important to consider what Atwood might’ve been thinking about with these lines. She is considering the larger world and the way that humanity has come to function within it. Hope is something uplifting, beautiful and in most cases, peaceful. The word “Win” is provided as a contrast.
This very short verb is brought to the speaker’s attention when it is spoken by “the angel”. As the poem progresses it becomes clear that “Win” is all-encompassing. It speaks to a society that wants to win everything at any cost. The word, policy and much less healthy state of being, takes precedence over the speaker’s word, “Hope”. It is what people want to follow. In the next lines the angel tries to direct the speaker to “wave any banner / that you will follow”. This suggests that the hive mind of humanity, and following the metaphor of the text, the crows, is willing to glom onto anything that sounds powerful.
The narrative of crows, human, war, life and death continues in the third stanza. Atwood’s speaker addresses humanity (in the form of a murder of crows) and tells them that they “ignore” her. She is there with her words reading “Hope” and no one listens. The crows/human has become too jaded and scared to believe in anything anymore.
They have been on the end of “too many theories” and “stray bullets”. Now, humanity/the crows, address everything skeptically. The speaker again mentions the “field” in this stanza. This time though it seems to take on other meanings as: a field of play, a place of war and a place where food is grown.
The speaker describes the crows becoming so limited in the things they trust that they have turned completely inward. Now, it is only the basics “the rhetoric of seed” that makes sense to them.
The fourth stanza of ‘Crow Song’ is much shorter than those that came before it. Small minded and pompous people lead humanity. Now, she adds, the only reason anyone resists is when it suits them; when dressing up is appealing. The last line is quite interesting and could have a number of meanings. She suggests that “you forget the sane corpses”. Those corpses are likely in reference to those who have come before them, died for a cause and therefore remained sane. They were not subject to the twists and turns of society that have occurred since.
The fifth stanza of ‘Crow Song’ moves to on to speak about something that “you,” human society, would like. She suggests that ideally most people would like a “god / to come down and feed you / and punish you”. This being would be something of a divine caretaker, responsible for all of human rights and wrongs. Therefore, humans no longer carry the blame.
The “god” reference is expanded to include the perspective of the crows who, the speaker thinks, see the scarecrow as a god-like figure. It is not, she states, “alive”.
The speaker goes back to the angel reference, explaining that there are “no angels” in the world expect for those of “hunger”. The satisfaction of base needs is all that matters.
Atwood’s speaker concludes the poem by saying that by spending so much time watching her “people” she too has become hopeless. Now she only has “politics”.