Thirteen Ways of Looking

Wallace Stevens

Did you know that if you type “13 ways ” into google’s “images” search, this poem is the fifth listed? It is preceded by 13 ways to bleed on stage, 13 ways to sink a sub, 13 ways to screw up  your college interview, and 13 ways you know your [sic– GRR] in love. Interesting, huh? 

Today’s poem comes from Wallace Stevens, a relatively readable Modernist poet. In this poem, he, like other Modernists, tries to communicate his vision by attempting to give his audience a 360 view of his subject (is it blackbirds?). He does this less overtly in “Study of Two Pears,” but just as masterfully. I suppose Modernism anticipates Postmodernism in this way. Modernism recognizes that our views are limited, but still assumes that an accumulation of views would present a totality of truth. Postmodernism instead embraces fractures for their own sake, almost, rejecting entirely any notion of totality, cohesion, or capital-T Truth. This poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is widely anthologized, so you may have read it before. It’s worth rereading. I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but here it’s a rainy, windy, wishy day– perfect for Stevens and a cozy drink. As you read this poem, you might as yourself what qualities it has that make it poetic. Why is this a poem and not a paragraph? If you say something about the ways it’s laid out on the page, you’re only part-way there. Also, check out this article about The Secret to Reading Poetry. It’s a good one. Enjoy!

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

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

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

Wordle Version

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.
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.

Blackbird woodcut by the amazing Kent Ambler

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,
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.

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