This essay will deal with the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens. The poem seems to be thematically structured to bring about a fuller understanding of our own thought processes and to enable us to realize shortcomings in our egocentric thoughts. By using the signifier blackbird, repeated in each of the thirteen stanzas, Stevens guides us through a process of self questioning. Separately, the verses are similar to Zen koans, designed to shatter your method of thinking to bring about enlightenment. Yet as a whole this piece seems gently to nudge you into the author's way of thinking, rather than shoving as Zen propounds.
The first stanza may be read as an introduction to the entire poem and a preparatory exercise for your intellect. Stevens conjures an image of a lone blackbird among twenty snow capped mountains, the only moving thing is the eye of the bird. If we consider the Blackbird as signifying the intellect, this suggests to me a feeling of omnipresence, of power and isolation, as many intellectually minded people may feel.
In the second stanza, we are asked to consider three blackbirds being as three minds within a tree. This seems strongly to suggest a trinity of the conscious mind, perhaps such as Freud suggested, the id, ego and superego. Adopting this reading, we may go further on to say that the tree represents the framework of our mind, i.e., the physical body, our brain, perhaps even knowledge. Then, the blackbird signifies singular thoughts on a particular subject.
The third sketch is more subversive than the first two. We are provided with an image of a blackbird being "whirled in the autumn winds", suggesting to me a loss of control, an overwhelming force acting on the blackbird. Not only that, the blackbird is said to be "a small part of the pantomime" suggestive of the Taoist notion of the ‘dance of life', the interplay of all living things, the blackbird is a microscopic example of all of life. I have therefore read this sketch to illustrate the role a thought plays in the mind as the role a blackbird plays in the cycle of life.
A more concrete example of the style of thought Stevens wishes us to explore are in the fourth stanza. It is styled on a fundamental Taoist principle that "all things under heaven are born of the corporeal: The corporeal is born of the Incorporeal" (Tao Te Ching, chap.40, Shambala 1990). The incorporeal the Tao Te Ching speaks of is the universal unconscious, the base spiritual kinship we have to each other, and indeed, to every object in the universe. Therefore a man and a woman at base are the same if we add a blackbird, they are all a part of the ‘oneness'.
Stevens in the fifth stanza seems to be alluding to the importance of grasping the difference between what is implicit and what is implied. Other words to describe these phenomena could be signifier and signified. The ‘inflections' of the Blackbird whistling I took to illustrate the signifying sign ( be it whistling, text, speech, etc.). Similarly, the signifier implies the ‘innuendo', or the signified. We must consider this from the very beginning of Stevens' own poem, with the title. Blackbirds will give every reader a different picture in their mind, but if one takes into account what the word Blackbird actually signifies as a sign within the structure of the piece, we have an altogether different appreciation of the work.
The complexity of the ideas and language in the sixth stanza lends a baffling air to the verse. However since Stevens has urged us in the last stanza to read deeper within the text in order to draw out the meanings, we are prepared for it. The first two lines "Icicles fill[ed] the long window with barbaric glass" is a very visual line, with images of looking out of an ice encrusted window, but it brings too the feeling of entrapment or encroachment. Then the "shadow of the blackbird" crosses the window, drawing our attention from the window to the flitting shadow where we are told "The mood traced in the shadow . . . an indecipherable cause.". The appearance of the shadow seems to provoke in the author a sudden flash of intuition, which unfortunately turns out to be ungraspable, or indecipherable to himself and to the reader also.
Again I felt confronted by another Taoist interpretation while reading verse seven. Why would you reach for loftier heights that are impossible to attain when everything you need is at your feet? Stevens counsels the "thin men of Haddam" to "see how the blackbird walks around the feet of the women about you.". According to the Tao Te Ching, we should "Know the masculine, keep to the feminine." (Shambala, 1990). Apparently, in both sources, the woman (female tendencies) is equated with being down to earth, wiser than those foolish men (masculine tendencies) becoming thinner while pining for golden birds and ignoring the blackbirds.
Here Stevens speaks of written or spoken texts, saying "I know noble accents and lucid inescapable rhythms." This at first seems to be very egotistical, telling the reader that he has extraordinary skills. Then, he admits that " . . . the blackbird is involved in what I know.". I draw two conclusions from this admission: that he hails the blackbird as an equal or even an influence to his writing, that this sentence is a tribute to the blackbird (nature). Also, that all of his rhythms and accents are easily traced back to a natural (not man made) source, for instance, the whistling of the blackbird has rhythms and accents, just as poetry has, therefore Stevens is not doing anything new, the blackbird does it all already.
On the surface of stanza nine, it seems that Stevens is referring to the horizon, or man's own line of sight, with which we may trace a circle from and point with us as the focal point. I believe what is signified is especially present in the final line " . . . one of many circles", what are these circles? I was reminded of the circle in nature and in life, everything revolves in a circular fashion, the planet, the food chain, life and death.
Verses ten and eleven introduce the concept of fear and guilt into our thoughts. "At the sight of blackbirds flying in a green light" can only suggest to me the idea of something being wrong with the light that the blackbirds are flying in, which I believe would signify the carrier of the thoughts (blackbirds). Therefore I take it also to mean that when something is amiss within ones thoughts, even those who are devout followers of mellifluence may exclaim sharply, or simply be affected adversely by the disquieting effect the blackbirds have in that light.
The theme of guilt is apparent in verse eleven, when we are told that a man riding "In a glass coach" which would suggest extreme fragility, coupled with an illusion of transparency, which are two things a guilty person may feel. Also, we are told that "Once, a fear pierced him, in that he mistook the shadow of his equipage for blackbirds." who but a guilty and fearful man would be pierced by fear at an illusion of blackbirds. Blackbirds in this case could mean many things, for example, the law, a party bent on revenge, an ex-wife/girlfriend, etc. The blackbirds I also take to symbolize his externalized guilt, projected into an illusion glimpsed below.
The aphorism "The river is moving ... the blackbird must be flying" is a common form in philosophical texts. The cause and effect principal; if the water flows, nature lives, the blackbird flies. In the context of nature, it speaks of the immutability of all, the resistance to change working hand in hand with the process of change. In reading this to describe humans, it is essentially the same. The water symbolizes life, the blackbird intellect or consciousness, as long as we live, our intellect flies. This is a natural segue to the last verse, having both the effect of calming our fears and restoring our faith in life.
The final verse in my reading deals with aging and death even. "It was evening all afternoon.." suggests a person in his declining years, death being night, evening nearing night. "It was snowing, And it was going to snow." suggests the foresight of experienced eyes, someone who has seen many winters and has been granted a limited prescience over the effects of nature. For the first time in the piece, the blackbird we see is immobile, sitting in the cedar limbs. Going back to the second stanza, and the idea of a tree as our physical body, with blackbirds representing our intellect or thoughts, we see the slowing down and eventual stopping of creative thought as night comes nearer.
Wallace Stevens is a man deeply involved with philosophical problems as they relate to man and his universe. He seems to be asking us to open our minds to the magic of everyday life, ie; the blackbird and nature, but also to reevaluate our mindset in relation to living in an ordinary, mundane world. I believe he is attempting to counsel us in using an open mind and creative visualisation in order to bring about a conscious bond between the causal and seemingly acausal relationships enjoyed by every object and living being involved in the dance of life.
Thirteen Short Poems Inspired by Haiku
It helps to think of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" as both a longer poem with thirteen sections and as a sequence of thirteen shorter poems. The sections belong together, but to some extent, they work individually. Specifically, each section bears some resemblance to the haiku, a very precise Japanese form that is divided into three sections. In English, conventional haikus are written in three lines with 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and 5 syllables. Obviously, Stevens has no interest in copying the exact form of Japanese haiku, or any other kind of poem, but he captures the atmosphere of a haiku. The haiku often concerns the seasons, as do several of the sections in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." For example, "snowy" in the first section suggests winter, and the third section specifies "autumn winds." Haikus also frequently contrast intense images of nature, like the blackbirds flying in green light in section X.
The poem has no regular meter, though elsewhere in his work Stevens used traditional meters like iambic pentameter, most notably in his famous, "Sunday Morning." Here he employs lots and lots of enjambment, where one line carries over into the next without a pause. But you probably add a slight pause anyway after the enjambed lines, giving the poem the peculiar formal quality that we often associate with Eastern wisdom:
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.