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Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird



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

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

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

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

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

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
2]O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

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

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

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
3]Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

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

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

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

First publication: Others (Dec. 1917): 109-11

 

Notes

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

2] 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).

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

 

Wallace Stevens was born October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennysylvania, and was educated in classics at Reading Boys' High School and at Harvard as a special student 1897-1900. There he acted as President of the Harvard Advocate and published some verse. After several years as a reporter in New York, Stevens entered New York Law School in 1901 and eventually clerked for W. G. Peckham, a New York attorney. Stevens was admitted to the bar in 1904. In New York he worked for several law firms and then joined an insurance firm, the American Bonding Company of Baltimore, which became the Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis. Stevens and Elsie Viola Kachel married in 1909 and lived in New York until they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1916. Until his retirement, he worked for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, moving up to Vice President in 1934. His poem "Pecksniffiana" won the Helen Haire Levinson Prize offered by Poetry in 1920. In his lifetime he brought out the following books of poetry:

Harmonium (New York: A. A. Knopf, September 7, 1923) York University Special Collections 734
Ideas of Order (Alcestis Press, August 12, 1935; A. A. Knopf, October 19, 1936)
Owl's Clover (Alcestis Press, November 5, 1936)
The Man with the Blue Guitar (New York: A. A. Knopf, October 4, 1937)
Parts of a World (New York: A. A. Knopf, September 8, 1942)
Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (Cummington Press, October 13, 1942)
Esthétique du Mal (Cummington Press, November 6, 1945)
Transport to Summer (New York: A. A. Knopf, March 20, 1947)
The Auroras of Autumn (New York: A. A. Knopf, September 11, 1950)
Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, February 6, 1953)
Collected Poems (New York: A. A. Knopf, October 1, 1954)

Only after World War II was Stevens recognized as a major poet. His awards and honours include membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1946), the Bollingen Prize for 1949, the Poetry Society of America Gold Medal (1951), the National Book Award in Poetry (1950, 1954), and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry (1955). He read and lectured often at universities and published one book of literary criticism, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (A. A. Knopf, November 12, 1951). Stevens died August 2, 1955, of stomach cancer, leaving one daughter, Holly Bright Stevens, who edited his letters afterwards. His wife Elsie Stevens died February 19, 1963. They are buried together at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.

* * *

The three Walllace Stevens texts below (Opus Posthumous, pp. 88, 111 and 115) point to approaches to haiku in relation to the Earth—realities:


THIS AS INCLUDING THAT

It is true that you live on this rock
And in it. It is wholly you.

It is true that there are thoughts
That move in the air as large as air,

That are almost not our own, but thoughts
To which we are related,

In an association like yours
With the rock and mine with you.

 

SOLITAIRE UNDER THE OAKS

In the oblivion of cards
One exists among pure principles.

Neither the cards nor the trees nor the air
Persist as facts. This is an escape

To principium, to meditation.
One knows at last what to think about

And thinks about it without consciousness,
Under the oak tree, completely released.

 

TWO LETTERS

In a secrecy of words
Opened out within a secrecy of place,

Not having to do with love.
A land would hold her in its arms that day

Or something like a land.
The circle would no longer be broken but closed.

The miles of its distance away
From everything would end. It would all meet.

 

* * *

 

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
First Published: 1917
Type of Poem: Poetic sequence

The Poem

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a sequence of thirteen Imagist poems written in variable syllabic verse. Line length varies from two to ten syllables, but the norm is four to eight syllables per line, thus approximating in English the line lengths of Japanese forms such as the haiku, the senryu, and the tanka, all of which utilize five- and seven-syllable lines. In effect, Wallace Stevens's series is a sequence of Japanese-style Zen poems. The unifying factor in the series is the image of the blackbird, which appears in each of the numbered sections of the set; each poem otherwise stands on its own and offers an insight either into "the nature of the universe," as does the haiku, or into "the nature of mankind," as does the senryu.

Each short poem in the series has its own subject, focus, and thesis, though all are related. The subject of the first, for example, has to do with existence and perception; the second, with perspective. The fourth poem makes the Zen Buddhist point that "all things are one thing." Number 5 discusses the differences between statement and implication. In the ninth poem, the theme is that the universe is a series of concentric circles extending outward to infinity. Number 12 is close to what the Japanese call a "katauta"-a short, emotive question and its intuitive answer. It would be a katauta if the first line were phrased in the form of a question-"Is the river moving?"-the answer to which is, "The blackbird must be flying."

These poems are quite unusual for Stevens, for they are Imagist in the style of his friend and correspondent William Carlos Williams, rather than in Stevens's normal style, which was Symbolist. That is to say, these poems exemplify Williams's dictum that there should be "no ideas but in things" and do not deal in what Carl Jung called "archetypes," or manifestations in language of the basic drives of human nature, such as love (Eros), wisdom (Athena), or power (Zeus).

Forms and Devices

Each of these short poems is basically a metaphor, though most of them also contain other sensory devices, such as descriptions and similes. A metaphor is essentially a language equation: A = B. The first part of the equation is the subject (called the "tenor"); the second part is the object (called the "vehicle"). It was William Carlos Williams's belief (as well as the belief of others of the school of twentieth century poets called Imagists) that, if one chose the proper object or vehicle, one would not need to mention the subject or tenor at all, for one would have chosen what T. S. Eliot called the "objective correlative"-that object which is relative to the idea being expressed. Thus, the idea would be clearly stated in the image itself.

For example, in poem number 5, which is really an embodiment of the theory stated in the paragraph above, there is a double tenor: "inflections"-that is to say, statements (denotations)-and "innuendoes," or implications (connotations). The speaker does not know which he prefers. He gives an example of each. The metaphorical vehicle of inflections is "The blackbird whistling"; the vehicle of innuendoes is the silence "just after" the blackbird has stopped whistling. The reader is left to decide which he or she prefers-the sound of the blackbird's whistle or the silence in which the overtone of the whistle hangs suspended like an echo.

Poem number 2 is a simile, not a metaphor. A simile does not make a strong equation between a tenor and a vehicle, but a comparison between dissimilar things with a point in common. The speaker says that he "was of three minds"-he was vacillating among three alternatives, much like a tree in which one can see three blackbirds doing three different things. Thus, the tree becomes an embodiment of the state of the speaker's mind.

Poems number 4 and 9 are neither similes nor metaphors; they are statements, but the assertions are also endless lists by implication. If one were standing in a prairie, for example, where one could see a long way, one might, as in number 9, be able to follow a bird flying so far that eventually the eye lost track of it and could no longer see it. That would be the edge of a circle, the circle of sight; yet the bird is still flying, assumedly, and when it finally lands, that would be the edge of another circle. The horizon beyond that is yet a third circle. The earth's orbit around the sun is a fourth, the solar system is a fifth, and the edge of the universe is a sixth; the edge of infinity would be the last. Stevens never says anything beyond pointing out the edge of the first "of many circles," however; all else is implied.

Similarly, poem number 4 begins a list: One man plus one woman "Are one." Upon consideration of this statement, the reader may well agree, for one is useless without the other and cannot exist separately for any length of time. Then Stevens adds a third item to the list: a blackbird. The reader may agree that, if two different things, such as a man and a woman, are in reality one thing, then it is possible that a third different thing, such as an animal, is also part of the same thing, the same "oneness." If the reader accepts this third item in the list, then all other items Stevens (or the reader) might have added, by implication, are one thing. This is a Zen Buddhist concept, that all things are one. It points out the Japanese character of this poetic sequence.

Themes and Meanings

The first poem in the series sets the overall theme of the sequence. Like poems 4 and 9, it represents a list, but it is also an objective correlative, the vehicle of an unstated metaphorical equation. The list consists of "twenty snowy mountains," a blackbird, and the blackbird's eye, but it also contains one other item not mentioned. Every poem has a narrator (the narrator of numbers 2, 5, and 8, for example, is "I," the author). Although there is no "I" in the first poem, someone is looking at this vista, so a fourth item in the list is the narrator. There are other things one might add by implication; if the narrator can see "twenty snowy mountains" in the distance, that means that his field of vision is deep and vast. The color white is specified in "snowy," as is the color black in "blackbird." Closeness is also implied, for the blackbird is close enough to the speaker to be seen clearly; in fact, it is so close that the narrator can see not only the blackbird's eye but also the eye moving-it is, in fact, "The only moving thing," so stasis is implied as well as motion. These are the contrasts of the poem: vastness (mountains) and smallness (blackbird, blackbird's eye); distance and closeness; whiteness and blackness; motion and stillness. One may ask why the poet is speaking only of contrasts and why an eye is mentioned. Is it what the blackbird sees that is important? What does the blackbird see? No doubt it sees the narrator, but by the same token the narrator is using his own eyes to see the blackbird in its environment and to see the blackbird's eye in the act of seeing him.

Thus, the subject of the first poem in the sequence is "seeing." The theme of the poem might perhaps be put into these words: "Seeing is an act of perception on the part of a living creature." The poem, like all the other poems in the sequence, has to do with the nature of existence. They are celebrations of life, but life seen with a cold eye-the clear eye of the existential poet, for Stevens believed that people ought to look directly and unswervingly at life, accepting it unflinchingly and without religious or sentimental props of any kind.

Poem 7 says this almost in so many words. The "thin men of Haddam" are the citizens of Haddam, Connecticut (Stevens lived in Hartford). The speaker of the poem asks the people why they "imagine golden birds." He asks what is wrong with the real life that is objectified in the blackbird that "Walks around the feet/ Of the women" of Haddam.

The thirteenth and last poem of the sequence is a coda, a summing up and an ambiguous climax; it is itself the last item in the list of short poems that Stevens has compiled. What is happening has happened and will continue to happen. The blackbird sat waiting for the extraordinary things of everyday life to occur. The implication is that there are many more than these thirteen ways to look at the blackbird and for the blackbird to participate in the actions of life. The season is winter, as it is in the first poem and in others of the series. One thinks, perhaps, of another early Stevens poem, "The Snow Man," in which Stevens said that "One must have a mind of winter" with which to regard the realities of existence.