Thirteen Way of Looking at a Blackbird

August 23, 2007 at 6:16 pm 2 comments

Wallace Stevens

Listen (to Hoon read)


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the black bird.


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


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


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


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


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.


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?


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


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


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


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


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


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

Hoon writes,

I can remember reading this in the lit books and thinking, “Eh?”. I think when you’re young you expect art, especially high art, to reveal something to you about life, instead of thinking of it as simply its own kind of artificial experience that occupies and hopefully improves the passage of time. So while “13 Ways…” deals with a serious subject, death let us say, the poem may not have a great deal to say to us other than: “Hey, this is a poem. Enjoy!”

Stevens seems to have posed himself the problem of whether a series of thoughts, impressions, he used the term sensations, sharing a common theme, but without clear logical continuity, could be somehow arranged to form an aesthetic whole, and enjoyed both as a whole but also as a disconnected, kaleidoscopic set. A verbal collage. What is needed to achieve then the barest sense of unity we might ask? While not saying much, and perhaps not to be agreed to by all, we will still assert that temporal art needs an opening, a progression of impressions or ideas, and a close. For a poem this can be achieved either semantically or phonetically, usually both. “13 Ways…” opens with a  winter scene and closes with, let us say, the same scene. A certain degree of cohesion is thus achieved. In between the episodes expand and contract, and move through various moods, rhythms, and associations. The sections are brief, haiku-like, but perhaps self-consciously so, and not to be taken too seriously as such. (“A man and a woman are one. …”)

The almost inevitable theme, given the large number of sections, is that death is everywhere, surrounding all we do (stanzas: 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13), in sex and love (stanzas: 4 & 7); and cannot be avoided (stanza 11); but possesses humor (stanzas: 2, 4, 5 – a blackbird whistling!), and like many of Stevens’ own poems, a quiet, austere beauty (stanzas: 1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 13). To fail to see the humor in “I was of three minds./like a tree /in which there are three blackbirds”, and to search for some greater meaning there, well you might as well try to explain what semolina pilchards are. Many of the lines and sections end on unaccented syllables and this gives the work as a whole a generally unsettled feeling, which does resolve though quite effectively in the final verse. While a scansion of the poem is beyond the range of this discussion, such a metrical analysis would show such a wide variety of rhythmic patterns that the poem may be viewed as a study of metrical techniques. As such it deserves close reading, listening, study.

The work is anthologized a lot, so seems to achieve a satisfaction for a great number of readers, and has surely been imitated frequently, but I think that the failure of many of its imitators to achieve its level of popularity points towards the difficulty in finding an audience for this kind of loose associative structure (although I’m sure there are a lot who would disagree with that assertion).


Entry filed under: Black Mamba, English, Hoon (, Wallace Stevens.

Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa TS So Long? Stevens

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. megha  |  October 19, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    in the shifting jade of day
    i gather
    hopefuls of wind
    for my handpainted sails
    and, by night i fly
    on the wings
    of the blackbird’s shadow

    i hadn’t read Stevens before; thankyou.

  • 2. darko x  |  February 27, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    ‘the poem may not have a great deal to say to us other than: “Hey, this is a poem. Enjoy!” ‘

    “a man a woman and a blackbird are one” says more about life than perhaps should be said.


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