Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is an important American modernist poem that can be seen in several different ways. Read on to find out more about the poem and how to analyze it. Then, test your knowledge with a quiz.
Wallace Stevens and Modernism
Wallace Stevens was a modernist poet who incorporated many styles into his poems. Modernist poets did away with the traditional form of poetry, instead preferring to use simple language and break from traditional rhyme and meter. Most of the modernist poets wrote for ordinary people. That’s why they preferred to use simple language: They wanted to make poetry more accessible for everyone, not just for the people who had gone to expensive, exclusive colleges.
But Wallace Stevens was different. He wanted to challenge his readers and often wrote poetry that was specifically geared toward people who were college-educated and familiar with forms and ideas that he used. In other words, his poetry can be a bit harder to understand.
‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’
Let’s look at Stevens’ most famous poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ and then we’ll examine three ways to interpret the poem.’Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’IAmong twenty snowy mountains,The only moving thingWas the eye of the blackbird.
III was of three minds,Like a treeIn which there are three blackbirds.IIIThe blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.It was a small part of the pantomime.IVA man and a womanAre one.A man and a woman and a blackbirdAre one.VI do not know which to prefer,The beauty of inflectionsOr the beauty of innuendoes,The blackbird whistlingOr just after.VIIcicles filled the long windowWith barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbirdCrossed it, to and fro.The moodTraced in the shadowAn indecipherable cause.VIIO thin men of Haddam,Why do you imagine golden birds?Do you not see how the blackbirdWalks around the feetOf the women about you?VIIII know noble accentsAnd lucid, inescapable rhythms;But I know, too,That the blackbird is involvedIn what I know.IXWhen the blackbird flew out of sight,It marked the edgeOf one of many circles.XAt the sight of blackbirdsFlying in a green light,Even the bawds of euphonyWould cry out sharply.XIHe rode over ConnecticutIn a glass coach.Once, a fear pierced him,In that he mistookThe shadow of his equipageFor blackbirds.
XIIThe river is moving.The blackbird must be flying.XIIIIt was evening all afternoon.It was snowingAnd it was going to snow.
The blackbird satIn the cedar-limbs.
‘Thirteen Ways’…and Haikus
Did you notice how each of the 13 ways is divided into its own short, simple stanza? Each one could kind of be seen as its own little poem. Many people have pointed out the way the stanzas of this poem are similar to haikus.
A haiku is a short Japanese poem, generally with three short lines, for a total of 17 syllables. Stevens might have been influenced by haikus when he wrote the stanzas. Though none of the stanzas are haikus in the strictest sense, many of them are sparse like haikus are. Look at the first and second stanzas again:IAmong twenty snowy mountains,The only moving thingWas the eye of the blackbird.
III was of three minds,Like a treeIn which there are three blackbirds.You’ll notice that each of these has very few words. In fact, they have just enough words to offer the barest outline of an image or idea, but not enough for the reader to fully see what Stevens is describing. There’s a lot left to the imagination, which is very common in haiku verse.
This poem also has a lot in common with imagism. Imagism is a poetry movement where the most important thing is to describe something very simply and with no extraneous words. This poem is full of simple descriptions of things. Consider the 12th stanza:The river is moving.The blackbird must be flying.
This stanza by itself could be an imagist poem: It simply describes something and lets the reader decide what the image means, if anything.
Meaning of ‘Thirteen Ways’
Besides imagism, though, there are many other ways to interpret this poem. One of them has to do with a school of philosophy called perspectivism.
According to perspectivism, nothing exists outside of our perspective, or interpretation, of it. A desk is not a desk; it is only a desk because we perceive it to be a desk. In this way, perspectivism is a philosophy that our perspective of things is what gives them meaning.Look again at stanza nine:When the blackbird flew out of sight,It marked the edgeOf one of many circles.In this stanza, the view of the blackbird flying out of sight gives the narrator (and the reader) a particular perspective on the blackbird. Think about how that perspective might be different if the blackbird was flying toward the narrator instead of away.
Many people view ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ as a perspectivist poem. That is, the poem is about all the different ways we can view a blackbird. Each stanza is a different perspective on the blackbird, and each stanza has its own meaning. The stanzas can be read on their own as if they were 13 mini-poems. Because they are self-contained like this, Stevens is pointing out that each perspective is itself as important as the blackbird. In fact, you could say that the blackbird in the poem doesn’t exist outside of the perspectives and therefore is a different bird in each stanza.
Wallace Stevens was a modernist poet whose poetry was influenced by many different forms and ideas. His most famous poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ can be viewed as a series of haiku-like poems, as an imagist poem, and as a poem about the philosophy of perspectivism.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain how Wallace Stevens differed from other Modernist poets
- Paraphrase the content of his poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’
- Describe how this poem has elements of haiku and imagism
- Understand how this poem exemplifies perspectivism