In a letter, Wallace Stevens said of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations." There is undoubtedly something instantaneous and minimalist about each of the thirteen stanzas, and if we follow this advice, we would do well not to overthink "Thirteen Ways," and to let it present its truth as an overall feeling. An equally interesting part of Stevens' description, however, is his phrase "This group of poems." Indeed, critics are divided on whether to consider it as one poem, or thirteen poems in a sequence. Each approach has its analytical benefits—but perhaps the most appropriate Stevensian strategy is to embrace the ambivalence between the two possibilities. After all, uncertainty is one of the poem's primary environments, and not an uncomfortable one: the poem adamantly refuses to assert one absolute, overarching truth. These questions emphasize the difficulty and the reward of analyzing "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird": it can have so many different meanings.
Before delving into each section individually, we can consider the form of the poem as a whole (with apologies to Stevens, I will default to referring to it as one "poem"). Stevens engages tangentially with two preexisting forms: the aphorism and the haiku. Aphorisms, or pithy sayings (such as, "don't count your chickens before they hatch"), have the sound of finality and carry a kernel of everyday truth, even if that meaning does not follow literally from its wording. Similarly, the "Blackbirds" stanzas often sound like pithy sayings, especially those that establish an internal progression of logic (for example, IV, VIII, XII). Like aphorisms, they are understated and self-contained, emphasized visually by the white spaces between the sections that make time for each stanza to settle in before the next begins. They are imperfect aphorisms at best—what exactly does "A man and a woman and a blackbird are one" mean?—but the similarity primes us to be receptive to whatever underlying truths or "sensations" may surface as we take in the poem.
The other minimalist form to which the poem has been compared is the haiku—as Eastern a form as the aphorism is Western (even in that pairing, the poem exists in ambivalence between opposites). Though none of the thirteen sections is a true haiku, they carry much of the same intention: they contain one or two images that are activated or connected by an idea. And though Stevens claimed he was not thinking of haiku, East Asian poetry and aesthetics were unavoidable topics among 1910s Anglophone poets, largely due to Ezra Pound's infatuation with Asian poetry and the potent, sparse imagery of the Imagist movement. We can go a long way towards identifying the poem's overall themes by considering each section as a minimal pair of two things, and examining the pressure or difference between them. For example, the duality of the mountains versus the blackbird eye in section I: between them is the potency of the eye's motion, the act of looking that spurs the poem forward. Between the "golden birds" and blackbirds of section VII is the key contrast of imaginary beauty versus real beauty. The circle's "edge" in section IX divides the realm of human knowledge from the unseen / unknowable. These crucial binaries, in such sparse stanzas, allow us to see the focal points where tension is created or resolved—thus, where a larger meaning emerges out of the simple image.
Lest we get too focused on each stanza in isolation, however, it is worthwhile to track themes that surface across many of the sections: the nature of beauty, the threat of death, among others. What is true in one stanza is not necessarily true in the others: the blackbird, for instance, is used in almost a wholly unique way in each. However, with caution, we can use clues from each section to gain new insights into the others. By the final section, when the poem returns to the snowy landscape and transforms the blackbird from a focal point of motion to an anchor of stillness, the blackbird sits heavy with the associations—harmonious, threatening, pensive—that have accumulated during its constant process.
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is exactly what its title suggests. No tricks, no gimmicks, no sleights of hand. In thirteen brief, mysterious sections, the American poet Wallace Stevens initiates us into the world of the blackbird, a bird so common you probably wouldn't pay attention to it if you saw one. These are the kind of birds that like to hang out on telephone wires, sit in bare tree branches, or peck at the ground on the side of the road. But Stevens's poem makes us look at the blackbird in new ways, and, by the time you finish reading it, you feel as if you could write the entry for the species in the Audubon Society's birding handbook.
Stevens might be the most important American modernist poet, and by "American" we're not counting people (T.S. Eliot, cough, cough) who left the country for Europe. Modernism is a very loose term for the literary movement that developed after World War I, and reflects the distinctive character of the modern world, with its banks, telephones, guns, automobiles, and whatnot.
Compared to our idea of rebellious, wild-eyed poets, Stevens was kind of like a blackbird himself: he didn't stick out. He spent most of his life working at insurance companies and lived in a run-of-the-mill Connecticut suburb. But don't be fooled: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a wild literary trip, as original as anything written this century. The poem seems to be inspired by the haiku, a very short Japanese poetic form that captures intense imagery like a lightning flash. You'll often find references to birds and seasons in the haiku, as you will in this poem. Stevens collected Asian artworks, and the influence of Asian traditions is obvious here. You could compare the effect of parts of the poem to a Zen riddle like, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
"Thirteen Ways of Looking a Blackbird" was first published in a literary journal in 1917, and it later became one of the signature works of Stevens's first poetry collection, Harmonium. Talk about a late-bloomer: Stevens didn't publish Harmonium until 1923, when he was 44 years old! Despite his late start, he went on to have a long and storied literary career. In 1955 he was awarded the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
Why Should I Care?
Thirteen Reasons You Should Care About This Poem:
- You want to be a Zen master without having to attract disciples or move into the mountains.
- Most of the things we read require us to follow the thread of some idea or argument, but this poem has no complicated narrative, no "message," no unified theme. In a letter, Stevens wrote, "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations" (source). In other words, you're not supposed to understand the poem, you're supposed to feel it.
- Stevens in the master of turns of phrase. See, for example, "bawds of euphony" and "barbaric glass."
- You see blackbirds everywhere – on telephone wires, on the side of the road. You might as well get to know them better.
- The poem shows that all the inspiration you'll ever need is usually no further than the view outside your window.
- You want to write your own "Thirteen Ways" poem.
- It's the perfect complement to the song "Blackbird" from The Beatles's White Album.
- Each section of the poem is like a Polaroid snapshot.
- You can read it as a hilarious parody of someone trying to be profound: "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one."
- If you have a gong, try hitting it once after reading each section aloud.
- It gives you an excuse to buy a gong.
- It gives you an excuse to buy Harmonium, one of the most beautiful poetry collections of the past century.
- The blackbird wants you to care. Nobody wants to disappoint a blackbird.