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.