Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Wallace Stevens

Copywrite - Public Domain

Original text source: Harmonium (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, September 7, 1923): 135-37. York University Library Special Collections 734

First publication date: December 1917

I
1 Among twenty snowy mountains,
2 The only moving thing
3 Was the eye of the blackbird.

II
4 I was of three minds,
5 Like a tree
6 In which there are three blackbirds.

III
7 The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
8 It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV
9 A man and a woman
10 Are one.
11 A man and a woman and a blackbird
12 Are one.

V
13 I do not know which to prefer,
14 The beauty of inflections
15 Or the beauty of innuendoes,
16 The blackbird whistling
17 Or just after.

VI
18 Icicles filled the long window
19 With barbaric glass.
20 The shadow of the blackbird
21 Crossed it, to and fro.
22 The mood
23 Traced in the shadow
24 An indecipherable cause.

VII
25 O thin men of Haddam,
26 Why do you imagine golden birds?
27 Do you not see how the blackbird
28 Walks around the feet
29 Of the women about you?

VIII
30 I know noble accents
31 And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
32 But I know, too,
33 That the blackbird is involved
34 In what I know.

IX
35 When the blackbird flew out of sight,
36 It marked the edge
37 Of one of many circles.

X
38 At the sight of blackbirds
39 Flying in a green light,
40 Even the bawds of euphony
41 Would cry out sharply.

XI
42 He rode over Connecticut
43 In a glass coach.
44 Once, a fear pierced him,
45 In that he mistook
46 The shadow of his equipage
47 For blackbirds.

XII
48 The river is moving.
49 The blackbird must be flying.

XIII
50 It was evening all afternoon.
51 It was snowing
52 And it was going to snow.
53 The blackbird sat
54 In the cedar-limbs.


This is one of my favorite poems. Not only is it WEIRD AS HELL, but it's rarely interpreted the same way by two people. Wallace Stevens is a genius, I say this not because his writing is particularly incredible, but anything that made people think as much as this has is a beautiful work of art. For those concerned, here is the way things played out when my friend and I attempted to interpret this twisted piece of litterature:

    Stanza One: This is very likely a verse about necrophilia. Stevens was somewhat fond of the subject (refer to Emperor of Ice Cream. "Among twenty snowy mountains" could be seen as ten dead women (twenty boobs, two per chick). "The only moving thing was the eye of the blackbird" would then, of course, refer to a (the) man's penis.

    Stanza Two: I actually decided that this may have been an attempt at a religious verse. "I am of three minds, like a tree, in which there are, three blackbirds." I have bolded the word three due to the significance in christian literature, the father, son, and holy ghost aka the "holy trinity".

    Stanza Three: I had trouble with this one, all we could figure is that he may be saying one man is but a small part of the world, that all the tiny things going on make up one big picture.

    Stanza Four: Another religious one - "A man and a woman are one" - the two are married, and therefor one being, whole. "A man and a woman and a blackbird are one" - the two are also whole with God in the relationship, perhaps moreso. If nothing else, it comes back to the whole power of three thing again (1+1+1=1?).

    Stanza Five: I believe this to be sort of a statement of "I do not know which is more beautiful, the things in this world, God creating them, or just after he has done so." Yeah, kinda weak, i know, but it's the best I could do.

    Stanza Six: This came across as a "God is everywhere, the reason is not always clear" statement. The blackbird crosses the window, "yeah! god's here, and is always with us" but the indecipherable cause? "why is he here? we will never know..."

    Stanza Seven: This one seemed fairly obvious to me. It appears as a direct refference to the second commandment from the book of Exodus - thou shalt not worship graven images. In other words, don't pray to golden idols, worship the one God. Now granted, Stevens was probably not litteraly reffering to golden statues, but modern day idols of money, power and fame still exist.

    Stanza Eight: I know a lot of things, but I know that God knows them all as well, and is involved in everything I do.

    Stanza Nine: I have NO clue, sorry :)

    Stanza Ten: This is kind of a refference to men being god fearing. Even those who constantly sing his praise, will be frightened and cry in the presence of the lord.

    Stanza Eleven: Again, the godfearing idea. A man, likely a sinner (maybe a lawyer :) ), sees the shadow of his carriage and jumps in fear, thinking it to be the blackbird (god) come to judge him.

    Stanza Twelve: If the world exists, it is because God is there. Everything happens through and with and because of God.

    Stanza Thirteen: Not really sure on this one, perhaps kind of a, "night and day, good or bad weather, god will always be there".

So, for the most part, I interpreted this as somewhat of a religious statement (minus stanza one, but hey, I calls em like I sees em ;) ). What else can I say besides: Wallace Stevens, you are one twisted Mother Fscker!

Notes:

As with any interpretation, of course, any but the original author is WAAAAY off the mark. These following are notes Wallace made himself about the letters. The numbers refer to line numbers of the poem.

1] In a letter to L. W. Payne, Jr., Stevens patiently explained that the poem dealt with sense experiences or "sensations" (Letters, 251).

25] Haddam: a town in Connecticut whose men may have dug once for gold but whose distinctively "Yankee"-sounding name accounted for its use here (Letters, 251, 786).

40] bawds of euphony: evidently, literary critics, those who make money off other men's enjoyment of harmony (Letters, 340).

(Wallace's notes were found here: http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem2018.html)

Thus, it might be true . . . that the style of a poem and the style of men are one.
Wallace Stevens “Two or Three Ideas”

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) worked for a short time as a journalist, completed his law degree and in 1934 became a Vice President at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He remained there until his death in spite of his increasing popularity and importance as one of the foremost writers of verse in American poetry.

Stevens's most notable poems, many of them dealing with the world of creative imagination in a world deprived of religious meaning include Le Monocle de Mon Oncle, The Emperor of Ice Cream, Sunday Morning, Anecdote of the Jar, Peter Quince at the Clavier and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

An ambiguous poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird depicts the narrator watching a blackbird through a window and how his mood changes along with each observation. His sensuous and elaborate imagery along elevated precise diction are reminiscence of William Carlos Williams with a bit of T S Eliot thrown in with the use of expressions of subtle philosophical themes creating a characteristic tone that is both lyrical and ironic. By taking blackbirds and contrasting them against thirteen ways to look at them the reader sees the bleakness and monotony of modern life with the richness of nature and of the aesthetic experiences but with a twist.

Focusing on the after images as aberrations, in fact all images are after, they behold for the reader a certain terror. "I do not know which to prefer," writes Wallace Stevens "The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / the blackbird whistling / or just after. Every image is an "afterthought" or "aftershock" of something that has already occurred. Like a modern impressionist painting with strokes of words Stevens work is a composite structure built of oblique meanings and surprising shifts that add up to an engaging portrait where symbol, and metaphor coexist. The verses are a journey from the physical to the metaphysical, a journey that is altogether poetic, technical, and philosophical. The poet examines his subjects with as few preconceptions as possible, taking familiar concepts and stripping away all associations until they become strange, producing ideas that are refreshing and new and straddles the ground between the intellect and the senses, leading the reader beyond the realm of theory and practice into the universe of the imagination, where "space" is experienced as something touched, seen, and thought. With this use of traditional Modernist experimental writing one scholar explains: "There is more poetic truth in this agile prose, these vivid, metaphorical descriptions and surprising juxtapositions than any amount of scholarly research could possibly unearth." Stevens solution is is to use multiple metaphors for God: masculine, feminine, non-sexual, and depersonalized. God has many names. If Wallace Stevens can write about "thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird," how many more ways must exist to envision the infinite and eternal God? The disorienting and revelatory shifts of focus in such a charming poem takes the romantic commitment to a specular order of attention, so that his poem has more than a trace of consistency. Emphasizing the geography or contour of the poem on the page, whether it be in monomorphic, polymorphic, or paratactic, the fulcrum in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is the word "see". Rhyme also serves a visual as well as aural effect.

Suggestive as Blackbirds may be, the theme of the poem is, "Pay attention to physical reality." What kinds of things are suitable to serve as units in a number? Clouds, ripples on the surface of a liquid, psychological states these things are usually too indefinite to count. How many psychological states did one experience yesterday? How can one objectively determine the answer? There are times which one can, for example, say that there are three clouds overhead. And, after all, this is not the Four Noble Truths, seven types of ambiguity, three theological virtues, or thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. Are the numbers that these sorts of things compose like Faith, Hope, and Charity form a triad in the way that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost do? Is Faith a thing in the same way that Father or Son is. The bafflement and uncertainty experienced when confronting these questions are reminders to the reader that the ancient conception of the numbers under consideration by the composer is not an exacting scientific concept. It is about nature after all.

The thin ascetic men of Haddam is chided by the poet for ignoring the good blackbirds and real women for golden phantasms. He remands the aristocrat who rides about Connecticut, of all places, in a glass coach as if thinking himself Prince Charming as inexcusable failure to exercise his intelligence. Steven's ends in a section with a tone that is straightforward and matter-of-factly sums it up. No matter what the reader does to interpret what Steven's has seen there remains the last image of one blackbird perched in the cedar tree awaiting the snowfall. The reader can smell the crisp cedar strongly sensed against the dry cold air of the impending weather. The tree is sharply in focus the air icier while the blackbird becomes a shadow.

Wallace Stevens is a poet who manifested an abiding interest in philosophy. His poems consistently display, in both their syntax and modulation of thought, philosophical parallels. Stevens' dominant mode of thought is phenomenological. This can be shown by analyzing parallels between phenomenological methodology and Stevens' poetry. Particularly three poems--"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1917), "The Snow Man" (1921), and "The Latest Freed Man" (1938)--embody, respectively, the poem as doing phenomenology,(a philosophical movement that describes the formal structure of the objects of awareness and of awareness itself in abstraction from any claims concerning existence ) the poem as a description of the phenomenological mind, and the poem as a portrait of the phenomenologist.

James A. Clark

For poetry ideas based on comparisons and contrasts, the very subjectiveness of interpretations James A. Clark writes about his book Wallace Stevens: A Portrait of the Artist as a Phenomenologist is an unintentional one of confusing modern poetry with philosophy, a common fault of literary criticism, even so, there are a tremendous variety of benefits to these critical interpretations.

I first came across this amazing poem at the age of 13, when a writing tutor gave it to me to see what I made of it. Reading it through once, I had no idea what it meant. Over the course of a day, I worked on its meaning, and, I still don't fully understand it. GoodKingNerdnor's comprehension levels of this poem are a lot higher than anybody else I've ever met (I've asked a lot of people since then what they make of it!), as the interpretations of the stanzas are sensible, and fit well. It's so much easier to work out the puzzle after you've seen the key! Thanks for your ideas! Just for amusement, I thought that I'd post up a 13 year old's perspective on this poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:

  1. Shows the insignificance of life on the grand scale, yet also shows how a small event can make a big impact. Also, I had wondered if it was contrast with colours, or possibly a racial issue?
  2. Indicision, mental confusion...
  3. Flurry of life, a small thing is once again insignificant, but following the drop in the ocean rule, if it was not there, the pantomine would be less for its absence.
  4. Joining, accepting common parts of life...
  5. At the time, this was completely beyond me!
  6. A fleeting moment in life can cause great sadness and depression.
  7. Don't worship idols, when magnificent creations of God are all about you.
  8. A bit hard, but I got that everything is connected by a divine mystery, and that all thoughts are linked.
  9. The whole mystery of life thing, but I do remember somebody telling me what their interpretation of this stanza was, and it made sense, but I've forgotten it now... sorry.
  10. To be fearful of something higher (flying) than you (I guess that could be interpreted religiously, but at that age, I couldn't quite get there).
  11. Didn't have any idea, but like IX, somebody did tell me, and I've forgotten that too... I'll try to remember.
  12. Everything is linked, and that the blackbird (whatever it symbolises) is small but controls the basic nature of this Earth.
  13. No matter what happens, a greater power will watch over the world.

Well, as you can see, my interpretations were a lot different then than they are now (I now agree with GoodKingNerdnor with most stanzas). I think, however, it is also interesting to hear a more immature view on poetry, as the thinking is different, and certainly not as deep. Years on, I'm still struggling with understanding the genius of Wallace Stevens, but it's also one of my favourite poems, simply because it's weird!

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