“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a sequence of thirteen Imagist poems written in variable syllabic verse. Line length varies from two to ten syllables, but the norm is four to eight syllables per line, thus approximating in English the line lengths of Japanese forms such as the haiku, the senryu, and the tanka, all of which utilize five-and seven-syllable lines. In effect, Wallace Stevens’s series is a sequence of Japanese-style Zen poems. The unifying factor in the series is the image of the blackbird, which appears in each of the numbered sections of the set; each poem otherwise stands on its own and offers an insight either into “the nature of the universe,” as does the haiku, or into “the nature of mankind,” as does the senryu.
Each short poem in the series has its own subject, focus, and thesis, though all are related. The subject of the first, for example, has to do with existence and perception; the second, with perspective. The fourth poem makes the Zen Buddhist point that “all things are one thing.” Number 5 discusses the differences between statement and implication. In the ninth poem, the theme is that the universe is a series of concentric circles extending outward to infinity. Number 12 is close to what the Japanese call a “katauta”—a short, emotive question and its intuitive answer. It would be a katauta if the first line were phrased in the form of a question—“Is the river moving?”—the answer to which is, “The blackbird must be flying.”
These poems are quite unusual for Stevens, for they are Imagist in the style of his friend and correspondent William Carlos Williams, rather than in Stevens’s normal style, which was Symbolist. That is to say, these poems exemplify Williams’s dictum that there should be “no ideas but in things” and do not deal in what Carl Jung called “archetypes,” or manifestations in language of the basic drives of human nature, such as love (Eros), wisdom (Athena), or power (Zeus).
Each of these short poems is basically a metaphor, though most of them also contain other sensory devices, such as descriptions and similes. A metaphor is essentially a language equation: A = B. The first part of the equation is the subject (called the “tenor”); the second part is the object (called the “vehicle”). It was William Carlos Williams’s belief (as well as the belief of others of the school of twentieth century poets called Imagists) that, if one chose the proper object or vehicle, one would not need to mention the subject or tenor at all, for one would have chosen what T. S. Eliot called the “objective correlative”—that object which is relative to the idea being expressed. Thus, the idea would be clearly stated in the image itself.
For example, in poem number 5, which is really an embodiment of the theory stated in the paragraph above, there is a double tenor: “inflections”—that is to say, statements (denotations)—and “innuendoes,” or implications (connotations). The speaker does not know which he prefers. He gives an example of each. The metaphorical vehicle of inflections is “The blackbird whistling”; the vehicle of innuendoes is the silence “just after” the blackbird has stopped whistling. The reader is left to decide which he or she prefers—the sound of the blackbird’s whistle or the silence in which the overtone of the whistle hangs suspended like an echo.
Poem number 2 is a simile, not a metaphor. A simile does not make a strong equation between a tenor and a vehicle, but a comparison between dissimilar things with...
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a point in common. The speaker says that he “was of three minds”—he was vacillating among three alternatives, much like a tree in which one can see three blackbirds doing three different things. Thus, the tree becomes an embodiment of the state of the speaker’s mind.
Poems number 4 and 9 are neither similes nor metaphors; they are statements, but the assertions are also endless lists by implication. If one were standing in a prairie, for example, where one could see a long way, one might, as in number 9, be able to follow a bird flying so far that eventually the eye lost track of it and could no longer see it. That would be the edge of a circle, the circle of sight; yet the bird is still flying, assumedly, and when it finally lands, that would be the edge of another circle. The horizon beyond that is yet a third circle. The earth’s orbit around the sun is a fourth, the solar system is a fifth, and the edge of the universe is a sixth; the edge of infinity would be the last. Stevens never says anything beyond pointing out the edge of the first “of many circles,” however; all else is implied.
Similarly, poem number 4 begins a list: One man plus one woman “Are one.” Upon consideration of this statement, the reader may well agree, for one is useless without the other and cannot exist separately for any length of time. Then Stevens adds a third item to the list: a blackbird. The reader may agree that, if two different things, such as a man and a woman, are in reality one thing, then it is possible that a third different thing, such as an animal, is also part of the same thing, the same “oneness.” If the reader accepts this third item in the list, then all other items Stevens (or the reader) might have added, by implication, are one thing. This is a Zen Buddhist concept, that all things are one. It points out the Japanese character of this poetic sequence.
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Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
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