B.J. Leggett: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

"Thirteen Ways" makes explicit what "Of the Surface of Things" indicates more indirectly--that a thoroughgoing perspectivism finds its ideal expression in aphorism. Aphorism's resistance to definitive meaning, its emphasis on the sense of things, on interpretation--all these in turn depend on a form that dictates the notion of a plurality of views that assume no larger context. Aphorism proclaims in its form, as does "On the Road Home," that "There are many truths, / But they are not parts of a truth" (CP, 203).

In order to give this sense of the multiplicity of seeing, the poem must isolate each perspective while indicating that they are all directed toward the same general subject. (A collection of aphorisms on a variety of subjects would not make quite so emphatic the poem's point of showing perspectivism without saying anything about it.) "Thirteen Ways," like "Of the Surface of Things," must therefore avoid a consistent style that might lead to the view that it is merely a set of observations of blackbirds, a view of things as they are rather than as they are perceived. A particular passage, say

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one

must be connected only through the presence of blackbirds with what comes before ("The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime") and what comes after:

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

Neither style nor convention (stanza or line lengths, rhythm, etc.) nor "theme" pulls these passages together into anything approaching sustained and coherent thought or feeling, although the stanzas have been made to form something closer to a traditionally structured poem by countless New Critical analyses operating under the assumption that a central poem by a major poet must have a formal coherence. Speaking of a poem that presents the same formal problems, "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," Helen Vendler argues that "if we believe in Stevens' good faith we must assume he thought it a viable whole" (66), and a generation of readers sought for ways to save Stevens from the charge of bad faith. Thus M. L. Rosenthal writes of "Thirteen Ways" that its stanzas "are woven together along two main strands of thought." One of these is "the blackbird as a symbol of the inseparability of life and death in nature," and the other, more vaguely defined, is "the poet's attitude toward his symbol" (128). The possibility that the form of the poem itself implies the absence of an overarching unity in which each look at the blackbird finds its place would have been a difficulty for several decades of Stevens criticism.


[Leggett quotes Stanzas V-VIII]

There is, as Coyle suggests, a sense of finality in these stanzas, but there is also the sense that each is only "For a moment final, in the way / The thinking of art seems final when / The thinking of god is smoky dew" (CP, 168). This passage fromThe Man with the Blue Guitar also draws the connection I have been pressing between the absence of being (or the postulation of becoming) and the adoption of perspectivism. It defines almost exactly the paradoxical effect--a finality that proclaims simultaneously the impossibility of finality--that aphorism imparts to 'Thirteen Ways."

Each of the stanzas above may of course be interpreted in a conventional manner. Stanza V, for example, opposes two kinds of beauty, one distinct and the other suggestive, that the blackbird's whistling is made to illustrate, and Stanza VI observes the way an object like a blackbird is defined by (and in turn defines) its surrounding. What is unconventional here is that the poem does not allow us readily to apply what we have seen or understood in one stanza to our reading of the next, since the linguistic function of the one "constant" in the poem, the blackbird, keeps shifting. It may be a part of a poetic figure in one stanza, a more or less literal reference in the next. The "meaning" of Stanza V thus has only a negligible bearing on a reading of Stanza VI; its "truth" is confined to the moment in which it is sensed or read. Only through such a form could the poem demonstrate its assumptions (in Robert Rehder's words) "that each act of vision re-creates reality and that every perception is a metaphor" (59). Without pursuing a Nietzschean interpretation, Rehder nevertheless arrives at. the same point, which recognizes the two fundamental assumptions "Thirteen Ways" is built on--each sense of the world is a new seeing, confined to its own unique perspective, and each has its origin in the perceiver (i.e., is a metaphor). The poem illustrates Nietzsche's view that the world "has not one sense behind it, but hundreds of senses"' (WP, II, 13), or, to state it in the visual figure of "Thirteen Ways," "There are many kinds of eyes. . . . therefore there must be many kinds of 'truths,' and consequently there can be no truth" (WP, II, 50). The contradiction that Nietzsche's statement entails--the assertion that there can be no truth offered as what appears to be the truth--is, we may note, appropriately mitigated by the fact that it occurs in a series of aphorisms, which tends both to highlight it--to emphasize its exaggerated profundity--and to neutralize it, to render it "just one more truth, one more / Element in the immense disorder of truths" (CP, 216).

'Thirteen Ways" is generally content to suggest its "truth" through its form rather than to assert it directly. The closest it comes to including its implied perspectivism as a theme is in Stanza IX: ''When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles," which is a way of saying that the world contains not one sense but many. Each sense of the blackbird defines an intelligible circle, the "meaning" of which exists only until the blackbird crosses its horizon. "We measure the world by these horizons," Nietzsche writes in The Dawn qf Day, "within which our senses confine each of us"; thus, "a concentric circle is drawn round every being. . ." (122). Stanza IX creates a figure for the aphoristic quality of the poem as a whole, a series of circles containing a blackbird or blackbirds, each of which achieves a momentary (but not therefore trivial) meaning.

Beverly Coyle believes that "the early Stevens sought for aphoristic techniques to make [his] tropes sound as fragmentary--as 'trivial'--as possible." She writes: "Skepticism is the philosophic basis for this particularly terse aphoristic style through which Stevens implies that there is no assertion that he can endorse with complete seriousness" (215). But this is to ignore a distinction between skepticism and perspectivism that is crucial for Stevens' poetry. The recognition that each sense of the blackbird is not a part of a larger whole does not trivialize it. To the contrary, texts such as "On the Road Home" (CP, 203) that assert multiple truths in place of one enveloping truth also assume that one's current perspective is enlarged rather than lessened by this insight:

It was when I said,

"There is no such thing as the truth." 

That the grapes seemed fatter,

The fox ran out of his hole. . . .

Far from leading to decline, the pluralist view here sharpens every sense of a world that is not less real because each perception of it is unique to the perceiver at that moment of perception, and the poem suggests again Nietzsche's view that "plurality in interpretation is a sign of strength" because it does not rob the world of its "disquieting and enigmatical nature" (WP, II, 101).

It is important to recognize that "Thirteen Ways" and the other aphoristic poems in early Stevens are not, strictly speaking, expressions of skepticism. They never question the reality of their world, only its accessibility to a universally true or stable description. One may say of the epistemological assumption of "Thirteen Ways" what Nehamas says of Nietzsche's thought, that it is not skeptical since it "does not deny the reality of things"; it does not "doubt that the world exists." It doubts only "that the existence of the world requires the existence of a description that is true of it from every possible point of view, a description that would depict it in itself as it really is" (83-84). It is not the existence of the world of "Thirteen Ways" that is at issue, only the possibility of a definitive description of it that does not originate in the sensibility of the perceiver. And aphorism in early Stevens, as in Nietzsche, is a way of depicting the resulting multiplicity of senses without discrediting or trivializing any particular depiction.


Excerpted from a longer analysis in Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext. Copyright © 1992 by Duke University Press.


Criticism Overview
Title B.J. Leggett: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author B.J. Leggett Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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