Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

by Wallace Stevens

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Themes and Meanings

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The first poem in the series sets the overall theme of the sequence. Like poems 4 and 9, it represents a list, but it is also an objective correlative, the vehicle of an unstated metaphorical equation. The list consists of “twenty snowy mountains,” a blackbird, and the blackbird’s eye, but it also contains one other item not mentioned. Every poem has a narrator (the narrator of numbers 2, 5, and 8, for example, is “I,” the author). Although there is no “I” in the first poem, someone is looking at this vista, so a fourth item in the list is the narrator. There are other things one might add by implication; if the narrator can see “twenty snowy mountains” in the distance, that means that his field of vision is deep and vast. The color white is specified in “snowy,” as is the color black in “blackbird.” Closeness is also implied, for the blackbird is close enough to the speaker to be seen clearly; in fact, it is so close that the narrator can see not only the blackbird’s eye but also the eye moving—it is, in fact, “The only moving thing,” so stasis is implied as well as motion. These are the contrasts of the poem: vastness (mountains) and smallness (blackbird, blackbird’s eye); distance and closeness; whiteness and blackness; motion and stillness. One may ask why the poet is speaking only of contrasts and why an eye is mentioned. Is it what the blackbird sees that is important? What does the blackbird see? No doubt it sees the narrator, but by the same token the narrator is using his own eyes to see the blackbird in its environment and to see the blackbird’s eye in the act of seeing him.

Thus, the subject of the first poem in the sequence is “seeing.” The theme of the poem might perhaps be put into these words: “Seeing is an act of perception on the part of a living creature.” The poem, like all the other poems in the sequence, has to do with the nature of existence. They are celebrations of life, but life seen with a cold eye—the clear eye of the existential poet, for Stevens believed that people ought to look directly and unswervingly at life, accepting it unflinchingly and without religious or sentimental props of any kind.

Poem 7 says this almost in so many words. The “thin men of Haddam” are the citizens of Haddam, Connecticut (Stevens lived in Hartford). The speaker of the poem asks the people why they “imagine golden birds.” He asks what is wrong with the real life that is objectified in the blackbird that “Walks around the feet/ Of the women” of Haddam.

The thirteenth and last poem of the sequence is a coda, a summing up and an ambiguous climax; it is itself the last item in the list of short poems that Stevens has compiled. What is happening has happened and will continue to happen. The blackbird sat waiting for the extraordinary things of everyday life to occur. The implication is that there are many more than these thirteen ways to look at the blackbird and for the blackbird to participate in the actions of life. The season is winter, as it is in the first poem and in others of the series. One thinks, perhaps, of another early Stevens poem, “The Snow Man,” in which Stevens said that “One must have a mind of winter” with which to regard the realities of existence.

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