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 miniscule detail counts. A reader who wants to make sense of these poems must be prepared to read closely. The first of thirteen 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.
In this three-line Imagist poem, then, we have these five formal elements: twenty/one, whiteness/blackness, stillness/moving, huge/small, and inanimate/living. The tensions between these pairs of details illustrate imagistic form in the hands of a consummate master. The accumulation of these tensions creates a significant form that the poet and an active reader can enjoy as an aesthetic experience.
Consider the thirteen ways in order.
I The position of the word “Mountains” separates the huge, cold, unmoving, inanimate world from the blackbird’s living, moving eye, as discussed above. This simple two-part "structure" can be found in all thirteen ways of looking.
II “Minds” separates the speaker’s three minds from an analogous tree with its three blackbirds. The speaker avoids the cliché of "being of two minds,” a mindless offering. Instead, he is “of three minds.” Three blackbirds might share a tree, but not their thoughts. For a person, being of three minds may be a good, if complex, mental state, especially if that person values each of his or her different “minds.” Stevens often drew on the works of the English Romantic poet John Keats, and one of Keats’ famous ideas is that of "Negative Capability.” Keats wrote in a letter to his brothers: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. . . .”
III The position of “Winds” distinguishes between the blackbird’s being whirled by the wind from the interpretive metaphor that the wind, the swirling, and the blackbird are part of “the pantomime.” The speakers places the whirling blackbird as a larger “pantomime,” a spectacle conveying meaning without the use of words. The blackbird is silent, its voice preempted by the wind.
IV The position of the first “One” separates a human couple (marriage partners?) from the couple with the imaginary zero of the blackbird added to the family. The poet seems to replace the traditional definition of marriage with a “modern” one. We know that Stevens is a comedian of words, and the reader has to look AT the words to get the jokes. Just as the cliché metaphor “I was of two minds” in II waves its hand to be called on, so does “A man and a woman / Are one.” Each of those phrases fails to have the life of poetry. Unless you are a poet. Consequently, Stevens in a sense deconstructs the universal and empty notion that “a man and a woman are one” by reducing it to an absurdity: “OK. Add in a blackbird and what do you have? Still a ‘union’?” You have a poem but no verbal answer.
V “Prefer” introduces the “I” into the poem (unusual in itself). He is of two minds (that cliché again) about the blackbird’s “inflections” and the silent “innuendoes” following. The speaker's “preferring,” even if left undetermined, separates him as audience from the blackbird as performer. In this poem, the poet intrudes as in II, and again his words play with language and its ineffable evocations. Stevens readers attuned to his many poems and essays about the necessary interaction between reality and imagination may safely associate the tangible inflections with reality and the innuendoes supplied by the listener's mind with the imagination. The poet's enjoying both equally is a modernist perspective. If he weren’t ambivalent, the "modernism" of the poem would be spoiled by giving the reader an “efferent” meaning, a message to carry away: "Innuendoes are better than inflections," or vice versa.
VI The poet's imaginative play with the grammatical subjects of his three sentences gives this beautiful poem its form. An active reader will see that each of the subjects--"Icicles," "The shadow," and "The mood" are not the active agents of their respective verbs--"filled," "crossed," and "traced." The imaginative perceiver sees the windows as "filled" and sees the icicles as "barbaric glass," a striking metaphor. The prosaic second sentence gives us the resemblance of the shadow to the unseen blackbird, but deflates it with "crossed it to and fro." (Stevens knew that if he tried to spike the reader's attention with every line, the poem would fail, just as surely as a musical composition would if it were crescendo from opening to close.) Following the preceding sentences, the reader expects "The mood traced in the shadow…" to be followed by "was such and such." But instead, the mood—not the perceiver whose mood it is—surprises us as an active agent that is trying to make sense out of the moving shadow on the barbaric glass. And fails: the cause is "indecipherable." But the poem is not, because Stevens' imagination makes us come to life as we read and respond to the subtle interactions among his words. Reality is metamorphosed via the resemblance of a blackbird's shadow to the blackbird itself, and by resemblance of icicles to barbaric glass, and by the resemblance of a mood to a poem's "indecipherable cause"—a poem waiting to be perceived by the genius of a poet's imagination.
VII It's impossible to miss the contrasting "resemblance" between the "golden birds" that fill the imaginations of the men of Haddam and the blackbirds walking about the feet of their women. Stevens in his prose and his poetry stressed that for poetry the imagination must achieve an interpenetration with reality and not go off into a fantasy world. In VII, he might have had in mind one of his fellow leading poets of the twentieth-century, the Irishman W. B. Yeats. Yeats was famous or notorious for the otherworldliness of his poetry. One of his greatest poems, "Sailing to Byzantium", describes his intention after death to be reincarnated as a golden bird. The last stanza of Yeats' poem reads:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Stevens may have admired the "poetic style" of this stanza, but certainly not its detachment from the poet's real world, which was perhaps "dear, dirty Dublin," as the realist Irish novelist James Joyce called it. Stevens expresses the sought-for relation between reality and imagination when he writes, "Escapism has a pejorative sense . . . . The pejorative sense applies where the poet is not attached to reality, where the imagination does not adhere to reality, which, for my part, I regard as fundamental". If the thin men of Haddam paid attention to what was at their feet and the feet of their women, the women might be happier and hence the men too. Incidentally, in the line "O thin men of Haddam," the reader can hear the subtle, modernist music that replaced the incessant end rhymes and clumping meters of poets like Edgar Allan Poe.
VIII This poem, like most of Stevens' poems, dramatizes the interaction between imagination and reality, this time in the realm of music, not the music of the concert hall but of words and their rhythms. The preceding poem, VII, has that sonically subtle line, "Oh, thin men of Haddam," where the consonants n and m color their preceding vowel sounds. This two-part poem explicitly expresses the poet's pride in his music, his "noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms," which the attentive reader must learn to hear, perhaps by reading the poems aloud softly to him or herself. The poet claims that this music is not solely of the imagination, but is rooted in the reality of the blackbird's image. Perhaps that means that in music the relation between harmonious pitches, such as a tonic and its dominant, are not imposed by imagination but are in the physical properties of the pitches themselves and the listeners' minds. Thus, harmonies and disharmonies are real, not imagined. And "inescapable rhythms," also, are not imagined but are mathematically built inside human perceivers and the physical beats and pauses.
IX “Sight” implies the poet as the observing center. His “world” reaches to the horizon, but he knows the blackbird roams larger worlds. Since the blackbird in these poems is the imagination's tether to reality, when it flies out of sight it does not soar like an angel or a golden bird to a transcendental realm; it simply goes over the horizon, like the ships that led Christopher Columbus to deduce that the planet was-—in reality-—spherical. The blackbird moves among earthly concentric circles (this one with the poet as center), instead of departing earth to rise through otherworldly spheres to the Empyrean Heaven, as the untethered European imagination taught for centuries.
X This is another two-part poem, two lines describing the blackbirds and two describing the would-be "bawds of euphony." As a reader knows by now, the blackbirds tether the imagination to reality, so the sight of them flying in green light might be garish, but a perceiver has to deal with it. As for euphony, pleasant sounds, Stevens often indulged in them but valued his imagination's freedom enough to often flaut them. He often played with words that "ordinarily" would not appear-—or be heard-—in poems (e.g., "the entrails of buzzards / Are rattling"). Many modernist artists did what they could epater le bougeoise (to offend the Philistines). The "bawds of euphony" are Philistines, who think greeting cards are the height of poetry.
XI In this poem the reader meets the city cousin of the "thin men of Haddam." Like those country cousins, the protagonist here would prefer golden birds to real blackbirds. And, although he is wealthy enough to have his lack of imagination insulated from crude reality, his glass coach, with its equestrian "equipage," carries him across Connecticut, not through the streets of Byzantium or Cinderella's hometown. But even in such a Plutocrat, the imagination breaks loose now and then and pierces him with fear.
XII The word “moving” clearly marks the point of tension between the opposing worlds of the blackbird and the human observer. The human observer over-generalizes by equating the ineluctable motion of the river with what he should know of the blackbird——sometimes on wing, sometimes in a tree, perhaps only his eye moving. Is each of the two identities actually defined by incessant movement? If a river ceases to flow, it ceases to be a river and becomes a lake. Does The Blackbird——here we clearly have the universal, not a particular blackbird——include incessant movement as a defining part of its meaning? If an individual blackbird stops moving, is it no longer a blackbird? What does it become? We are pointed toward the answer in poem XIII: “The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs.” The answer is that “Blackbird” is a word in a poem, this poem, and another poem, ad infinitum. Once again, Stevens leads us to become aware of his words as words, not just as tokens for things we observe. Poetry is the battleground between precision in word choice and the imagination's demand for freedom.
XIII This poem returns us to the opening one, a cold, silent winter day, with one or two human observers and a blackbird in a tree. The human concern with the passage of time seems blurred. Evening and afternoon become fused as do the past and the future. “It was evening all afternoon” is such a simple and natural comment on some northern winter days. The blackbird, though, as a kind, seems always there waiting—Reality, beyond human plans and contingencies, but as a bearer of life to the human imagination.
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 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
- The Necessary Angel. New York: Knopf, 1951. 31
- 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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- Edward Picot's animated illustrations