On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"
The blackbird is the only element in nature which is aesthetically compatible with bleak light and bare limbs: he is, we may say, a certain kind of language, opposed to euphony, to those "noble accents and lucid inescapable rhythms" which Stevens used so memorably elsewhere in Harmonium. There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird because thirteen is the eccentric number; Stevens is almost medieval in his relish for external form. This poetry will be one of inflection and innuendo; the inflections are the heard melodies (the whistling of the blackbird) and the innuendoes are what is left out (the silence just after the whistling)
The blackbird has perhaps something in common with Eliots "shadow" that falls between potency and act, desire and consummation [in "The Hollow Men"]. But Stevens would deny that it is remediable or accidental intrusion between two things that without it would be better off. It is, rather, of one substance with the things it relates:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after. (iv)
Between the man and the woman is the blackbird, one with them; between the mans mood and his environment is the blackbird, the indecipherable cause of the mood which is mans response to nature (stanza vi); between the man of Haddam and their imagined golden birds is the blackbird, the real on which they construct their "artifice of eternity" (vii); between the haunted man and his protective glass coach is the terror of the blackbird (xi); it lies at the base of even our powerful verbal defenses, those beautiful glass coaches of euphony and lucidity/ It is, finally, the principle of our final relation to the universe, our compulsions, first of all,
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying. (xii)
and, lastly, our despair at death:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar limbs. (xiii)
But neurosis and death are only instances of a pervasive relational eccentricity. Our extent in space (as well as in time) goes only as far as the blackbird goes the blackbird is our "line of vision" (ix), as it is our line of thought: when we are of two minds (or, as Stevens presses it, "of three minds"), it is not as if we had a blackbird, an oriole, and a pigeon in view, but only "a tree / In which there are three blackbirds" (ii). The blackbird is by no means all it is surrounded by the vastness of twenty mountains, the autumn winds, the snow but though only a small part, it is the determining focus of relation.
From Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens; Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1969), 75-77.
[I]t both unmakes the logical expression of ontological being, and creates a new linguistic field for speculative exploration. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is, from my way of looking here, one of Stevens' primary testing grounds for combining older uses of metaphorical and symbolic meaning with new nonrealist and nonidealist--non-ontological--uses of to be. Although widely applauded, it has received surprisingly little close attention.
Sections I and XIII embrace a sequence of great diversity and even dispersal, unified, it might seem, only by the presence of a referential blackbird (or blackbirds) in each section. Each of the thirteen sections demonstrates a fragmentary instantaneousness that relates it to Imagist poetry of the period and may distract us from the fact that the framework itself creates a very strong sense of location or setting; that is, it posits a spatial context and indicates the extent of this context for the sequence it embraces.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
The closing section XIII reiterates the sense created in section I of a solid geographical or "natural" landscape. Through the Stevensian technique of prepositional foregrounding, Stevens attaches the very grammatical subjects of his sentences to the material stuff of signifiers like "Among . . . snowy mountains" and "In the cedar-limbs." The referentiality of the setting might be thought of as preexisting since there is a pretense of artlessness coupled with inertness, as though nature's handy perches were simply ordinary givens. They offer themselves as the place for "the only moving thing" to begin a series of movements that finally still themselves in XIII. But of course, this assertion relies on a premise of ontological fullnesssomewhere--in nature, in the speaker's choice from among external givens, or in the human imagination's constructs from nature. The past tense of the frame may contribute to this sense.
In section I, the given, "Among twenty snowy mountains," is both enticing and imprisoning. The tight chiasmic embrace of "A-mong . . . moun-tains" encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives "tw-en-ty" and "sno-wy." Movement intervenes through semantic reference, but it is enacted through the play of signifiers when the spell of the phrase is loosened in the second line by the advance, of regular iambs and the "rhyme"-ing, unstressed in "moving" and stressed in "thing." The final "moving" of the sentence's subject, the "eye of the blackbird," moves us from a natural given to an imaginative or imaginary one, still ontological, in the movement that is necessary for the flight of the poem. The paradox of predicating this imaginative and emotional reality--a bird's eye is anatomically incapable of movement--stresses its metaphorical value.
Indeed, as a synecdoche for the activity of the viewer and a metaphor for the work of a poet, that roving, moving "eye" signifies the initial impulse for the movement needed to find "thirteen ways of looking." The blackbird's eye represents the shifting, animated, spirited world of creatures in the midst of the frozen world of geology. It also forms part of a delicately traced visual image that we might imagine as contrasting the dark glint of the blackbird's eye with the supposed whiteness of the mountains, a tiny eye point with a vast expanse, and lively and attentive movement (fictive and anatomically impossible though it is) with frigid immobility. Considering the blackbird's potential symbolic import as a bird of ill omen, this function of glinting, shifting, living, moving must relativize any simple contrast between its blackness and the white background. The eye of the blackbird must embrace a range of symbolic meanings across a spectrum from the benign to the malign, like Melville's whale. Although ominous in its blackness, it is also promising for its ability to escape all but the determinism of movement itself. We have seen in "The Motive for Metaphor" how a demiurgical chain of unexpected transformations can be set off by "Desiring the exhilarations of changes." For besides leading back to the quasi-ontological eye of the blackbird, the "moving thing" also implicates the emotions of the looker who is moved. The eye of the "I" implicitly scans the frozen landscape to pick out the one object that moves or that moves him--that is, the only object that signifies: blackbirds. The "I"'s desire determines the terms in which the fiction of the poem can be constituted.
The verb form "was" in this case predicates the first step toward fulfillment of the speaker's purpose, which is to examine one object from English grammar, and it makes us hesitate not only about the rules of metaphorical resemblance, or its supposed basis in described empirical reality, but also about deduction and its basis in linguistic logic.
The first four sections, however, constituting our way into the poem, play a predeterminant role in foregrounding to be. They encourage us as readers to problematize the question of "being" we will encounter in later sections in other developmental schemes. The speaker in the opening sections I to IV reaches into language and removes it from its common sense and ontological ground. For instance, the speaker predicates himself saying that he "was of three minds," not two. He then proceeds not by exegesis but by a simile in which he trickily deploys the tactic of reshuffling mere letters: He strips "three" of its h to make "tree," pseudo-ontologically puts it back in "there are," and leaves the "tree" again, through the copular bond of "are," to produce "three blackbirds." This is the new definition of "I" as sleight-of-hand man. Switching tactics, the speaker's trinity of minds and trinity of blackbirds give way in section IV to another trinity consummated by a simpler copular use of the verb to be: "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one." The paradox begotten of this copula may be an even more convincing play against ontology. "Are one" suggests the commonsense possibility of the union of flesh, love, knowledge, social life, and being within the semantic paradox of "one" being two. Including the blackbird in the "one" of man and woman in the second statement introduces the difference of an alien species, making the union a perhaps unholy one. In this vein, the resolution of the two statements into a hypothetical third statement of the implied syllogism would produce nonsense. A man and a woman are a man and a woman and a blackbird. The minor point is that syllogism is in any case for Stevens an example of philosophical or rational language that has no validity as poetic statement. What Wordsworth in his Prelude called the "syllogistic words" of a wizard are an apt simile for the logic chopping of rationalism, in that both wizards and rationalists "unsoul" the mysteries that bind humankind together into "one brotherhood." The major point lies elsewhere: equivalence in poetic language is shown to result from the accretive movement from "man" to "wo-" + "man," to a second movement that adds "blackbird;" poetic unity is created by the syntactic parallel of "Are one." That is, it is the copula that is the unifying force of the speaker's world. Semantically or lexically weak, it obtains its strength from establishing pivotal relations and balancing forces. It is a point around which degrees of distinction and equivalence, and diversity and unity, can be deployed experimentally.
Such moves take place within very small poems whose referential boundaries are established by visual, spatial images. In sections I to III these images are expressed with the verb to be combined with prepositions which incorporate it into the locative function. In addition, the "tree / In which" we meet the "three blackbirds" in II signals a unified grammatical and graphic space created by language for the poet's creative free play. This is given phonetic expression in section III, where the blackbird thing and "blackbird" word "whirled in the autumn winds." Who knows what the antecedent of "It" is in "It was a small part of the pantomime"? (Is it "The blackbird," the whole preceding sentence, or the phonetic play?) "It was," however, is what holds the speculative balancing act together among the vast possibilities of which the poem illustrates just a few. The "pantomime" is not just a "natural" mimicry but also a linguistic one, the great space of English.
Although it is difficult to extend such readings beyond the merely self-reflexive or metaphorical, we notice that the semantically weak locative is foregrounded as one of the main structuring principles for the extra-ontological cognitive work of the poem. Once the principle of location has been firmly established through the verb to be, it is constantly reiterated in other verbal contexts. The prepositional phrases have extremely diverse syntactic functions, as in:
"The mood / Traced in the shadow / An indecipherable cause" (VI)
"the black bird / Walks around the feet" / "Of the women about you" (VII)
"the blackbird is involved / In what I know" (VIII)
"the edge / Of one of many circles" (IX)
"the blackbird flew out of sight" (X)
"At the sight of blackbirds / Flying in a green light" (X)
"He rode over Connecticut / In a glass coach" (XI)
"The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs" (XIII) (emphasis added)
The referential looking denoted in the poem is focused on delimited spaces or even on the very elements that delimit them. Language is an analogous space whose limitations or boundaries are thus also inherently defined through a process of foregrounding and reiterating linguistic functions rather than affirming semantic meaning.
This is one of the senses of sections VI-VII and IX-XI, in which the locative is joined with verbs of filling, crossing, tracing, walking, flying, marking, riding. Inscribed within the space under a Roman numeral, they suggest the various motions of drawing, barring, scratching, dotting, jotting, coloring, and running off the page effected by the writing. The location is the necessary precondition, whether the frame be a "long window" or "shadow" (VI), the positioning of women "about" the men (VII), "the edge / Of one of many circles" (IX), "in a green light" (X), or the "glass coach" in which a man goes riding "over Connecticut" (XI). Both "looking at" a natural blackbird in a natural world and attempting resolution by logic are displaced by speculation (also looking, even spying) of another sort. On the one hand, this new speculation should avoid the fantastical deformations imagined of the "thin men of Haddam"--Adam (VII) or mistakes made despite seeming transparency (XI). On the other hand, it should deal with the material given by the "shadow" inscribed within the writer's frame rather than pursue an irretrievable and "indecipherable cause" (VI). Crossing and walking around within the poetic context and testing it metaphorically by flying "out of sight" (X) graft small-scale but bold experimentation onto an acute awareness of grammatical artifice and convention.
Symbolic conventions are also subordinated to the foregrounding of grammatical ones. Among the archetypal spatial symbols Stevens evokes in "Thirteen Ways" is the circle, dear to Saint Augustine and Emerson.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
Stevens' image disperses the unifying mystical force of Saint Augustine's God whose center was everywhere and circumference nowhere. Stevens' circles are akin to the material illustrations with which Emerson opens his essay, "Circles"; "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second." The circle is indeed that through which we see and the limit of what we see. But whereas Emerson goes on to say that "throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end," Stevens, rather than looking for a First Idea here, affirms an undifferentiated plurality that strips his circles of the Ideal that Emerson calls in this essay "the highest emblem in the cipher of the world." The linguistic circles Stevens inscribes in this poem are not all variants of the same but all differently shaped spaces of looking as well as of speculating. The role of locative constructions, of which the word circle is a semantically full sign, is to establish the linguistic architecture of 'Thirteen Ways"--a confined space of verbal looking or speculation. What is beyond the circle is not seen; its edge erects a boundary for the thought of the poet.
The liminal situation of the poet's vision in section IX is paralleled by the situation of his language in it: it signifies, on the one hand, the constraints given by language, materialized in an "edge" at the end of a line, a graphic shape that borders on the void but is saved from conclusion by the following line, "Of one of many circles." If there are other circles, with other edges then, the "edge" mentioned here is the only one that is related to this blackbird. The section also affirms a movement that surpasses or passes over the edge of any single circle--the section's metaphorical unity--into a plurality of other circles or the space containing those circles. Each section in "Thirteen Ways" inscribes its own distinctive logico-grammatical movement within a specific syntactic space that has only tangential rational or ontological relevance.
As poets have always known, the acceptance of certain material limits allows creativity to concentrate itself. Stevens' limits are less the traditional ones of versification than the ambiguous boundaries of the grammatical functions of some of the most common words in English, most strikingly to be and prepositions. The reference to the panto- = "all" and mime = "imitation" (III) affirms an ambition to point beyond the minutiae that are denoted. It would be wrongheaded to deny the idealist aspirations of Stevens' project, or to overlook his search for a concrete poetic utterance that would be adequate to some metaphysical or noumenal form like "The thing I hum" that "Appears to be the rhythm of this celestial pantomime" in "Landscape with Boat. But his chosen medium, language--not clay, paint, dance movements, or musical sequence--must find "all" it can do in its own terms. And in "Thirteen Ways" we discover that language inevitably narrows itself in order to expand and circumscribes in order to "whirl" (related to Old Norse hvirfill = "circle, ring, summit") as "in the autumn winds" (III). Stevens' English shows that its power comes from revolving within a space it is familiar with in order to make strange new relationships within it.
As a last movement in this chapter, then, I would like to look at sections V and VIII, which signify the difficulty of the poet's balancing act. They illustrate in particular the impossibility of choosing between external and internal speculation. In imagistic terms, sections V and VIII suggest alternatives: the pleasure felt during the blackbird's whistling, as compared to that felt after it in V; a rhythmic or sound-oriented model for poetic knowing, as compared to the primarily cognitive and/or symbolic model of the blackbird in VIII.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
On the level of the signified, but on this level only, section V seems to propose an ontologically "full" choice between "The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes," that is, for example between the modulations of voice (parallel to the "whistling" of the blackbird) and the meaningful suggestions that come to the mind with a slight delay (parallel to "just after"). On the level of the metaphors, there is an impossible choice between poetry itself and its resonance in the mind. This relatively simple metaphor becomes a complex place of poetic rather than ontological speculation when we consider the playful use of etymology in "inflections" and "innuendoes." We recognize that the word "inflections" illustrates the principles of English word building, like the use of different prefixes already present in Latin (inflect, deflect, reflect) and the Anglicization of the marks of different parts of speech, such as the common substantive suffix -tion here, or such forms as inflected, inflectional, inflexibility. It thus belongs to a large family of regularized and domesticated English words derived from the Latin root, flectere, now considerably impoverished in terms of its morphology--that is, its inflections. The hidden genealogy of the word "innuendoes" is quite different. Despite sharing with "inflections" the in-prefix meaning "in or toward, "innuendo" derives from the ablative case of the Latin gerund and is thus less a fixed thing and more a function or means. Appropriated as an English noun, its unusual -endo form nonetheless separates it from the static abstractness of -tion and relates it to musical terminology like "crescendo" and "diminuendo." It suggests not only by its etymology (nuere = "to nod") but also by its form a process or unfurling. It brings with it the functional or relational aspect of innuere = "to nod, to signify." Contrasted with the unbending bendingness of the word "inflections," the word "innuendoes" moves toward another gerund, another holder for that moving suffix -ing but a Germanic one this time: "whistling." The blackbird's inflections increase in sensuousness through this encounter between Latin and Old English. Interaction between the Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of modern English can also be found in the spurious parallel between "prefer" and "after," words that dimly mime each other in look and sound but are in fact constructed along entirely different principles. "Prefer" and "after," verb and adverb, delimit a temporal location within which the section unfurls and moves forward. What should come first is undecidable, as is what can happen in the "after" after the section's end. Such play with root meanings, real and spurious kinship, and metaphor suggests both non-referential speculation within the poem and semantic inference beyond the limited sphere of the poem.
The necessity of this doubleness is stated allegorically in section VIII.
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms,
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
The triple "I know" counters the "I do not know" of section V, but it articulates a disturbing discrepancy ("But") between light ("lucid" ¬ lucidus = "light, brilliant, pure") versus dark ("blackbird"), and linear movement ("accents" and "rhythms") versus circular containment ("involved" ¬ volvere = "to roll, turn"). The speaker must submit himself to the requirements of aesthetic forms implied by the "noble accents" and "lucid, inescapable rhythms," just as he must accept the quotidian material reality of "the blackbird" and the necessary symbolic grounding implied by the circle of being "involved." Sound and bird are locations into which the speaker is inevitably taken by the prefix in-. Yet the "I" is greater than the "blackbird," which is only a part of what he knows. The two halves of the section do not balance evenly. In the speculative process, which is linked to vocal utterance and music here, the movement inward is only part of the larger movement forward, enough to stop the progress of this particular section but not enough to dry up the poet's utterance. The sound of the word "no" is repeated three times in the form of its homonym ("know") and once in "noble." "I know" forms a three-step staircase in the spatial layout of the poem, a descent from "noble accents" (chiming with "noble ascents"?). Yet it is a "yes" to knowing "in" the parts of language that can be loosened from purely referential and semantic bonds, in parts where the poet's inner ear listens to the sound patterns of the poem. This is also where Stevens' possibility lies.
The material signs that allow for such linguistic cross-fertilization, alternation, and overlapping as we find in section V are especially visible in Stevens' early poetry, though present throughout his whole poetic oeuvre. Such etymological and morphological play suggests a jouissance in the doubleness of Stevens' relationship in and to language, a pleasure to be found in the doubleness of constraint and possibility in language. The poet works from within it to reach his "objective," "the truth not only of the poem but of poetry." The blackbird's constantly shifting "meaning" does indeed give it a Moby-Dick-like ambiguity of good-evil, loving-fearsome, vital-deathbound traits, while the web of morphological resemblances and syntactic modulations through which it moves confer on it that rational "decreation" that is so typical of Stevens' poetry up to "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction" in the early forties.
The blackbird thus becomes a figure of the very language that effects a realignment of cognitive activity within language. Language means both the denotative, symbolic, and metaphorical space of its signifieds and the textual space of the signifiers, such as the word "blackbird." Hence the insistence on grammatically marked location throughout the poem. If Stevens' poem speaks of its own condition of being determined by its linguistic history, it also allows the poet to "create" beyond the provincial boundaries his own linguistic culture has erected. If the language deceives, then the shock may represent a danger for knowledge, as when the passenger in the coach "mistook / The shadow of his equipage / For blackbirds" and was pierced by fear (XI). Or if its activity surprises the observer and transforms the objects, as in "blackbirds / Flying in a green light," our values may be shaken like the "bawds of euphony." We are warned too that something false can be taken for that play of possibility and constraint represented by the blackbird in its varying linguistic contexts. If the blackbird seems to have an effect on every section's context and changes the reader's sense of what Stevens called "reality" in it, it is also the case that each local verbal or linguistic context changes the blackbird and changes the effect of the whole on us as we become aware of how our linguistic culture works cognitively,
The various contexts created throughout the "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" might be considered from the romantic point of view as haphazard attempts at defining or identifying the writing subject's relation to an object that is already ambiguous in itself and is a symbol rich in potential for producing hopes and fears. But here the emphasis would be on subject and object. If we place an emphasis instead on the "writing," the sections individually create an expectancy. The various dubitative stances of such sections as II, V, VI, VII, and VIII reveal an unavowed search for perfection. But a poem like "A man and a woman / Are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one" (IV) stands only on the decidedness, not the ontological or logical value, of the copular "Are one." The destabilization brought about by extra-ontological strategies forces meaning out of the visible world of natural looking and its invisible counterpart, into the world of language and its place in the poet's and reader's world.
In this sense, the ill omen of the blackbird's color and the number thirteen are counterbalanced--though not entirely counteracted--by a counter-ethos of what I called before the "optimism" of section V. Poe's raven can only reiterate "Nevermore," but Stevens' blackbird becomes a signifier that enables the proliferation of ever new contexts. The speculative activity of "Thirteen Ways" consists less in creating cognitive knowledge about some hypothetical truth than in creating a poetic being, both as the text is being listened to and looked at and in the post-poem silence, beyond the bird's whistling and the hearer's listening, and beyond the confines of the page.
From Wallace Stevens Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute. New York: St. Martins Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Beverly Maeder.
"Thirteen Ways" makes explicit what "Of the Surface of Things" indicates more indirectly--that a thoroughgoing perspectivism finds its ideal expression in aphorism. Aphorism's resistance to definitive meaning, its emphasis on the sense of things, on interpretation--all these in turn depend on a form that dictates the notion of a plurality of views that assume no larger context. Aphorism proclaims in its form, as does "On the Road Home," that "There are many truths, / But they are not parts of a truth" (CP, 203).
In order to give this sense of the multiplicity of seeing, the poem must isolate each perspective while indicating that they are all directed toward the same general subject. (A collection of aphorisms on a variety of subjects would not make quite so emphatic the poem's point of showing perspectivism without saying anything about it.) "Thirteen Ways," like "Of the Surface of Things," must therefore avoid a consistent style that might lead to the view that it is merely a set of observations of blackbirds, a view of things as they are rather than as they are perceived. A particular passage, say
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
must be connected only through the presence of blackbirds with what comes before ("The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime") and what comes after:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Neither style nor convention (stanza or line lengths, rhythm, etc.) nor "theme" pulls these passages together into anything approaching sustained and coherent thought or feeling, although the stanzas have been made to form something closer to a traditionally structured poem by countless New Critical analyses operating under the assumption that a central poem by a major poet must have a formal coherence. Speaking of a poem that presents the same formal problems, "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," Helen Vendler argues that "if we believe in Stevens' good faith we must assume he thought it a viable whole" (66), and a generation of readers sought for ways to save Stevens from the charge of bad faith. Thus M. L. Rosenthal writes of "Thirteen Ways" that its stanzas "are woven together along two main strands of thought." One of these is "the blackbird as a symbol of the inseparability of life and death in nature," and the other, more vaguely defined, is "the poet's attitude toward his symbol" (128). The possibility that the form of the poem itself implies the absence of an overarching unity in which each look at the blackbird finds its place would have been a difficulty for several decades of Stevens criticism.
[Leggett quotes Stanzas V-VIII]
There is, as Coyle suggests, a sense of finality in these stanzas, but there is also the sense that each is only "For a moment final, in the way / The thinking of art seems final when / The thinking of god is smoky dew" (CP, 168). This passage from The Man with the Blue Guitar also draws the connection I have been pressing between the absence of being (or the postulation of becoming) and the adoption of perspectivism. It defines almost exactly the paradoxical effect--a finality that proclaims simultaneously the impossibility of finality--that aphorism imparts to 'Thirteen Ways."
Each of the stanzas above may of course be interpreted in a conventional manner. Stanza V, for example, opposes two kinds of beauty, one distinct and the other suggestive, that the blackbird's whistling is made to illustrate, and Stanza VI observes the way an object like a blackbird is defined by (and in turn defines) its surrounding. What is unconventional here is that the poem does not allow us readily to apply what we have seen or understood in one stanza to our reading of the next, since the linguistic function of the one "constant" in the poem, the blackbird, keeps shifting. It may be a part of a poetic figure in one stanza, a more or less literal reference in the next. The "meaning" of Stanza V thus has only a negligible bearing on a reading of Stanza VI; its "truth" is confined to the moment in which it is sensed or read. Only through such a form could the poem demonstrate its assumptions (in Robert Rehder's words) "that each act of vision re-creates reality and that every perception is a metaphor" (59). Without pursuing a Nietzschean interpretation, Rehder nevertheless arrives at. the same point, which recognizes the two fundamental assumptions "Thirteen Ways" is built on--each sense of the world is a new seeing, confined to its own unique perspective, and each has its origin in the perceiver (i.e., is a metaphor). The poem illustrates Nietzsche's view that the world "has not one sense behind it, but hundreds of senses"' (WP, II, 13), or, to state it in the visual figure of "Thirteen Ways," "There are many kinds of eyes. . . . therefore there must be many kinds of 'truths,' and consequently there can be no truth" (WP, II, 50). The contradiction that Nietzsche's statement entails--the assertion that there can be no truth offered as what appears to be the truth--is, we may note, appropriately mitigated by the fact that it occurs in a series of aphorisms, which tends both to highlight it--to emphasize its exaggerated profundity--and to neutralize it, to render it "just one more truth, one more / Element in the immense disorder of truths" (CP, 216).
'Thirteen Ways" is generally content to suggest its "truth" through its form rather than to assert it directly. The closest it comes to including its implied perspectivism as a theme is in Stanza IX: ''When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles," which is a way of saying that the world contains not one sense but many. Each sense of the blackbird defines an intelligible circle, the "meaning" of which exists only until the blackbird crosses its horizon. "We measure the world by these horizons," Nietzsche writes in The Dawn qf Day, "within which our senses confine each of us"; thus, "a concentric circle is drawn round every being. . ." (122). Stanza IX creates a figure for the aphoristic quality of the poem as a whole, a series of circles containing a blackbird or blackbirds, each of which achieves a momentary (but not therefore trivial) meaning.
Beverly Coyle believes that "the early Stevens sought for aphoristic techniques to make [his] tropes sound as fragmentary--as 'trivial'--as possible." She writes: "Skepticism is the philosophic basis for this particularly terse aphoristic style through which Stevens implies that there is no assertion that he can endorse with complete seriousness" (215). But this is to ignore a distinction between skepticism and perspectivism that is crucial for Stevens' poetry. The recognition that each sense of the blackbird is not a part of a larger whole does not trivialize it. To the contrary, texts such as "On the Road Home" (CP, 203) that assert multiple truths in place of one enveloping truth also assume that one's current perspective is enlarged rather than lessened by this insight:
It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth."
That the grapes seemed fatter,
The fox ran out of his hole. . . .
Far from leading to decline, the pluralist view here sharpens every sense of a world that is not less real because each perception of it is unique to the perceiver at that moment of perception, and the poem suggests again Nietzsche's view that "plurality in interpretation is a sign of strength" because it does not rob the world of its "disquieting and enigmatical nature" (WP, II, 101).
It is important to recognize that "Thirteen Ways" and the other aphoristic poems in early Stevens are not, strictly speaking, expressions of skepticism. They never question the reality of their world, only its accessibility to a universally true or stable description. One may say of the epistemological assumption of "Thirteen Ways" what Nehamas says of Nietzsche's thought, that it is not skeptical since it "does not deny the reality of things"; it does not "doubt that the world exists." It doubts only "that the existence of the world requires the existence of a description that is true of it from every possible point of view, a description that would depict it in itself as it really is" (83-84). It is not the existence of the world of "Thirteen Ways" that is at issue, only the possibility of a definitive description of it that does not originate in the sensibility of the perceiver. And aphorism in early Stevens, as in Nietzsche, is a way of depicting the resulting multiplicity of senses without discrediting or trivializing any particular depiction.
Excerpted from a longer analysis in Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext. Copyright © 1992 by Duke UP.
In his Letters Stevens said of the blackbird sequence, "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations." In what senses? Among the Russian formalists, a theorist named Viktor Zhirmunski published a study of rhyme in 1923 when Stevens's first book, Harmnium, appeared beside Williams's Kora in Hell, Donald Wesling recounts in The Chances of Rhyme, specifically focusing on off-rhyme and what his Russian colleagues called "making it strange." The device of inexact rhyme calls self-reflexive attention to a literary text and language-as-medium, Zhirmunski said, through a sequencing effect: defamiliarizing a reader entering the text, defacilitating the interpreter with verbal intricacy, and retarding the critic's progress digressively. The effect is to slow down time, heighten awareness, and open radical interpretive possibilities, where assumption blocks intuition, or arrogance shuts down understanding. Similarly, in Shakespeare's Meanings Sigurd Burkhardt writes of Shakespeare driving a verbal wedge between sound and meaning, in order to free his language from expectation and cliche. As with off-rhyme, so with slant imagesbeyond critical paraphrase, slightly gnomicthey throw the poem into what Yeats called "radical innocence," positions of witness and testament, less interpretation, the bear's heart all the more singing differénce. A poem must be, Auden noted, more than anyone can say about it. Just so with the blackbird sequence, a poem of optics and phonics, among other things, shattering reality into irregular facets of a mysterious jewel that reflects spectral colors, iridescent light from a black diamond. At least thirteen ways into this, each angle of refraction redefines the blackbird, as each moment shifts the image.
To begin, the trochaic title is strangely reverse of blank verse (the only pentameter in the poem): "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The trochee's insistently reverse rocking, beginning with that superstitious surd, thirteen, an indivisible number with no stable root, sets up an inverse poetics, or radical set of "Ways"that is, passages or mental journeysof "looking at" (not so much seeing) a bird the color, all colors, of the night. This is trickster stuff, as Ted Hughes darkly develops in Crow, the off-comic possibilities of god as Harlequin who tosses disappearing dice with reality. The poem shows us seeing a "black" bird as surd pronoun, it, treading syllabic night terrain, searching for winged focus on a disappearing, then reappearing radical. Call it the blackbird factor, the unpredictable quark of reality, the poem's decentering center. Disruptively patterned, this wild shadow is its own original being, in motion.
Oddly enough, the first tercet is a still scene, the minimalist quiet of Oriental landscape painting brushed with haiku delicacy. "Among twenty snowy mountains," the line opens, rising and falling reversely, "The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird." Can this be iambic meter, when six of the seven two-syllabled words are trochaic, and the second line enjambs a trochee spondaically, "thing / Was"? What are the metrics? Twenty-one syllables in three lines, 8/6/7 ,focus on "the eye" of a blackbird among "twenty" whitened mountains. The reader's eye and ear move back over the syllables, searching for clues to movement in the landscape, and fix, sideways, on the blackbird slanting at an angle. So the equation seems to be twenty mountains, plus one black eye (a perceptual pun?), in twenty-one micro-syllabics, or n + 1, as the blackbird factor to begin. We can always count on one radical in any given set, moving among counted numericals. Still more, while one blackbird eye moves visibly, the other remains hidden, we imagine (the back side of things), suggesting forces behind or beneath the surface visual image. (Not) see it new would be Stevenss take on "Make it new," Pound's modernist formula from the Chinese. That which is beyond us remains irreducibly the Other, to be noted, respected, acknowledged, if not altogether seen. Like the other side of the globe, or the dark side of the moon, or the libido's reservoir in the id, we must also imagine it new, as this Other eye is always turned away, but always there. For Stevens, it must be imagined because it is, even if we can't quantify or touch it, as with an electron, a black hole, the square root of three, or a perfect human union. Shamanic riddles, the quizzical chill or slant truth of Dickinson's work, say, always lie hidden behind the mask, beneath the surface of ordinary things. Theres mystery in the old mundo, marvelous in the mundane, as ordinary things harbor extraordinary potential. This won't be an easy poem to track.
Through the rhyming acoustics of three, tree, and there, the second tercet toys with lingual, hence metaphoric triangulation: "I was of three minds, / Like a-tree / In which there are three blackbirds." Perhaps the optic reference is two eyes focusing on one tree, a + b = c, or in a folkloric vein, mortality witnessing the tree of life-and-death, the indivisible trinity completed on the cross (three is the first surd with no square root). Also note that it takes two eyes, focusing diagonally, to create one three-dimensional, in-depth image. Perceptual reality is complex, to say the least, and at its simplest, most mysterious (Leonardo spoke of "the vanishing point" in his three-dimension rendering of the Annunciation, Gabriel, Mary, and a distantly dissolving river). The meter of the third line is uncertain, "In which there are three blackbirds," perhaps, and the formal arc of the poem less and less calculable. Still, a unified diversity hovers there, one consciousness "of three minds," like blackbirds three-in-one-tree. The poetics tilt dangerously off-center, just shy of nursery rhyme magic. Subtract an h, or add one and shift the r: the slightest change changes everything, three-treeee-there; yet the whole remains one cross-stitched homologue, an optic riddle and odd-sense rhyme.
The next couplet implies that the mind mimes the world it sees in motion, as a blackbird whirls in autumn winds. Nature shows itself a "pantomime" or dumb show without words, its essential action preceding language. The fourth section, all form lines starting with a, or alpha, hints that no anaphoral coupling, Adam to Eve, man to woman in the beginning, is complete without a decentering third radical, the blackbird factor. Union comes from disunion, as even turns on odd. The dark strangerPluto to Orpheus and Eurydicethickens the plot radically, realistically. The unknown other to a given rhyme or couplet keeps the poem going (Pinsky's "pleasure of disturbance"). So far, the text is playing with parts-in-motion of a whole, jockeying for kinetic position to view the blackbird's collective facets.
The fifth stanza questions which tonal cadence most makes way for beauty, in-flec-tion or in-nu-en-do, "The blackbird whistling / Or just after." Is it accent, or afterthought, that suspends sensethe word spoken, or the reflective silence that follows? The plot is in the pause. Just so, shadow to caesura, the longer sixth section shows the triple remove of the blackbird's shadow, crossing icicles of "barbaric glass" outside a "long window." Here "barbaric" (from the Greek, ethnoi for foreigners who stutter bar-bar like sheep) modifies the scintillant dactyl, "icicles," and we sense how many optic removes the eye, a fluid sphere refracting light in a black pupil, must see through to catch a fleeting glimpse, a dark image of a darker flying object. Icicle, literally Old English "ice of snow," traces back through Frost's melting verse on a stove to the snow man's wintry Otherness, the "nothing that is" out there. The blackbird's shadow darts back and forth outside civilization's glassed house (again the empty jar's echo). The radicals of remove prove multiple, metrically tracing "in the shadow / An indecipherable cause," as Plath says pointillistically of the retreating horseman in "Words," those "indefatigable hoof taps." Window, shadow, to and fro, mood, and shadow come together as the first true rhymes of the poem: an echoing sense that we've reached an inner corridor, a winged truth.
In high rhyme now, the poet addresses those "thin men of Haddam" to ask why they follow Yeats to Byzantium after imagined "golden birds," when the real blackbird walks at the feet of their women, looking up. Not fantails, but fleshy feet give the physical downbeat of art ("let be be"), the "under"-standings that Poldy Bloom glimpses following a woman's skirt up the stairs, or admires on library chairs under reading women. High diction and formal metrics amount to little, lacking the ground sense and sensual counterstress of the blackbird's fetching antics, deconstructing all art that climbs too high. And so the bird flies off the page, over the horizon, "the edge / Of one of many circles," from viewer's eye to global curve; and just so quickly, it reappears in an Edenic green light, drawing bawdy cries of ecstasy. Recall the first poetic speech as interjection (Ah! or Ha!), here from "the bawds of euphony," those academic wenches of high art. Even critics can be moved from fustian to ecstasy by springing resurgence ("the green corn gleaming").
The eleventh set trips metrically uneven, the poet riding "over Connecticut / In a glass coach," again reminiscent of the artifice of the Tennessee jar. Through the rattling glass of a formal poetic (train) coach, a mistaking "fear pierced him"the shadow of his carriage, that high-riding "equipage" of art, seems the steely shadow of the blackbird, a decreative omen sparking creative fear. And so, penultimately conclusive, the Heraclitean river flows ever onward, never to be stepped in twice the same, the blackbird still flyingand it is about to snow, that in-between "evening all afternoon," when slant light haunts the study, and the end anticipates a new beginning: "The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs." Cedar is the dream wood the world over, Lebanon to the Dakotas, the tree of seeing visions, and in it still sits the bird of all-colored night, shadow of shadows. In a world of radical unrest, he will momentarily close as the fixed radical, reality's shifting point-of-reference, just as the poem opened with one black eye among twenty snowy mountains. Poetry comes from a voice about to sing, Valery said, and Stevens's verse rises out of blackbirds soon to fly.
from Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Regents of the University of California.
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