Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

by Wallace Stevens

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Student Question

What is the technical experiment in Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and how do his other poems clarify it?

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The poet's name is Wallace Stevens. He worked as an insurance agent for most of his adult life, but also was a prolific poet and remains one of the most famous modern American poets. In "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" Stevens creates thirteen short stanzas of free verse, all of them based on the theme stated in the title: ways of looking at a blackbird. The different stanzas use simple, almost minimalist imagery and an almost Zen-like approach. Stevens' poetry is generally understood to be inscrutable and occasionally absurd. The imagery is carefully crafted and idiosyncratic, with a rich and luxurious use of language, but often the overall effect is rather cold and unemotional. The minimalism of the blackbird poem is a commentary upon Stevens' complex and elaborate use of language. The simple imagery has a profound beauty and this is an effective counterpart to the intricate but unemotional language the poet normally employs (as in "The Idea of Order at Key West" or "Sunday Morning").

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