Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Analysis

Wallace Stevens

The Poem

“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).

Forms and Devices

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...

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