Beverly Maeder: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

[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.

I

Among twenty snowy mountains, 

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

XII

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 fullness—somewhere--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.

IX

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.

V

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.

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. Martin’s Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Beverly Maeder.

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Title Beverly Maeder: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Beverly Maeder Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Nov 2015
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