Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a poem from Wallace Stevens' first book of poetry, Harmonium. The poem consists of thirteen short, separate sections, each of which mentions blackbirds in some way. Although inspired by haiku, none of the sections meet the traditional definition of haiku. It was first published in October 1917 by Alfred Kreymborg in Others: An Anthology of the New Verse and two months later in the December issue of Others: A Magazine of the New Verse.
"Thirteen Ways..." may be interpreted as one of Stevens's exercises in perspectivism, and accordingly may be compared to such poems as "The Snow Man". The perspectives that matter for Stevens issue from the poet's imagination, which, somewhat in the spirit of philosophical nominalism, can unify the world in various ways—for example, as a man and a woman, or a man and a woman and a blackbird (section IV). The artist's perspective may be shaped by what he attends to, as for instance on inflections or innuendoes—the blackbird whistling, or just after (section V).
The poem's haiku-like austerity is striking. Affinities to imagism and cubism are evident. Buttel proposes that the title "alludes humorously to the Cubists' practice of incorporating into unity and stasis a number of possible views of the subject observed over a span of time".
Sight is the dominant perceptual modality. The poems are almost cinematic, as though, and this is a somewhat anachronistic reading, in the first stanza, a camera focuses on a mountain panorama and then zooms in to the blackbird and its roaming eye. Some readers see some reason to classify it as among the metaphysical poems in Harmonium. But Stevens dismisses metaphysics in his 1948 essay "Imagination as Value", when he approvingly quotes Professor Joad's assertion that "all talk about God, whether pro or anti, is twaddle", and then Stevens adds, "What is true of one metaphysical term is true of all" There are better grounds for classifying it as among the book's sensualist poems. "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas", Stevens remarks in one of his letters, "but of sensations". The main Harmonium essay quotes Poetry editor Harriet Monroe's praise for Stevens' sensuous poems: "If one seeks sheer beauty of sound, phrase, rhythm, packed with prismatically colored ideas by a mind at once wise and whimsical, one should open one's eyes and ears, sharpen one's wits, widen one's sympathies to include rare and exquisite aspects of life, and then run for this volume of iridescent poems." That praise applies to "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird".
A close reading
Since "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a set of minimalist sketches, every minuscule detail counts. A reader who wants to make sense of these poems must be prepared to read closely. The first of 13 ways can be viewed as a lesson in the close reading of Imagist poems, especially ones written by as deep a poet as Wallace Stevens.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Some readers unfamiliar with modernist art might question whether those lines are a poem. Reading the lines as an Imagist poem requires the reader to look at the words, enjoying them aesthetically, rather than through, them, seeking a hidden message. That kind of reading is sometimes called "foregrounding," which means perceiving the similarities and contrasts among the words, rather than just their grammatical, logical, or narrative connections.
Stevens, in his essay "Three Academic Pieces" (1947), begins by saying:
- "The accuracy of accurate letters is an accuracy with respect to the structure of reality.
- "Thus, if we desire to formulate an accurate theory of poetry, we find it necessary to examine the structure of reality, because reality is the central reference for poetry. By way of accomplishing this, suppose we examine one of the significant components of the structure of reality--that is to say, the resemblance between things."
Stevens' term "resemblance" refers to those relations of similarity and contrast, as he goes on to demonstrate in that essay. A more technical word for what he is referring to is "organic form." Stevens was cautious of the word "form" used to mean a prefabricated structure: "So it comes to this, I suppose, that I believe in freedom regardless of form".
The resemblances—the organic form—in the first of the "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" are subtle and complex, especially for a three-line poem. In this Imagist poem, the "resemblances" are mostly those of contrast. "Snowy", with its whiteness, resembles by contrast the "blackbird". "Mountains" resembles the "eye of the blackbird" by their immense, inanimate immobility in contrast to the small living and moving eye. Similarly, "Twenty" animates by contrast the "only thing", the singularity of the blackbird's one eye. A less attentive poet might have said, "the eyes of the blackbird", making it a different and lesser poem.
Each member of these contrasts acquires meaning through its relation to its opposite. For instance, the pattern of twenty huge, white, unmoving, inanimate mountains makes the poet and us see the meaning of the one small, black, moving, eye of the living blackbird, and vice versa. Stevens denies the notion that concrete details lead the reader to an "abstraction", as is sometimes claimed.
The poem has inspired a number of musicians, including the American contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird which derived their name from the poem's eighth stanza which makes references to "noble accents/And lucid, inescapable rhythms", and inspired several specific compositions as well:
- "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", by Lukas Foss, Thirteen Ways, by Thomas Albert;
- "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", by James Tenney
- "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", by Louise Talma for Tenor/Soprano, Oboe/Flute, and Piano;
- "Thirteen Other Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (Piano Sonata No. 2) by Charles Bestor; and
- Blackbirds, for Flute and Bassoon, Gregory Youtz.
Additionally, the title "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a..." has been endlessly paraphrased in articles (e.g. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackout", music album-titles (e.g. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Goldberg"), and anywhere else a particular topic seems to bear examination from a number of different perspectives.
- Others: An Anthology of the New Verse on Google Books
- Others: A Magazine of the New Verse on the Modernist Journals Project
- Buttel, p. 165
- The Necessary Angel, Knopf, 1951, 138.
- Stevens, H. p. 252
- The Necessary Angel, New York: Knopf, 1951. 71.
- Opus Posthumous, Knopf, 1957, xxxviii
- Thirteen Ways
- "Louise Talma: Compositions"
- Blackbirds, for Flute and Bassoon
- Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackout by Bruce Sterling for FEED Magazine
- Amazon page for Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Goldberg performed by Lara Downes
- Chowder, Ken (1980). Blackbird Days. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0060114967.
- McCann, Colum (2015). Thirteen Ways of Looking. New York: Random House. ISBN 9780812996722.
- Buttel, Robert. Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium. 1967: Princeton University Press.
- Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. 2000: Macmillan Press.
- Stevens, H. Letters of Wallace Stevens. 1966: University of California Press
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