Kenneth Lincoln: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

In his Letters Stevens said of the blackbird sequence, "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations." In what senses? Among the Russian formalists, a theorist named Viktor Zhirmunski published a study of rhyme in 1923 when Stevens's first book, Harmnium, appeared beside Williams's Kora in Hell, Donald Wesling recounts in The Chances of Rhyme, specifically focusing on off-rhyme and what his Russian colleagues called "making it strange." The device of inexact rhyme calls self-reflexive attention to a literary text and language-as-medium, Zhirmunski said, through a sequencing effect: defamiliarizing a reader entering the text, defacilitating the interpreter with verbal intricacy, and retarding the critic's progress digressively. The effect is to slow down time, heighten awareness, and open radical interpretive possibilities, where assumption blocks intuition, or arrogance shuts down understanding. Similarly, inShakespeare's Meanings Sigurd Burkhardt writes of Shakespeare driving a verbal wedge between sound and meaning, in order to free his language from expectation and cliche. As with off-rhyme, so with slant images—beyond critical paraphrase, slightly gnomic—they throw the poem into what Yeats called "radical innocence," positions of witness and testament, less interpretation, the bear's heart all the more singing differénce. A poem must be, Auden noted, more than anyone can say about it. Just so with the blackbird sequence, a poem of optics and phonics, among other things, shattering reality into irregular facets of a mysterious jewel that reflects spectral colors, iridescent light from a black diamond. At least thirteen ways into this, each angle of refraction redefines the blackbird, as each moment shifts the image.

To begin, the trochaic title is strangely reverse of blank verse (the only pentameter in the poem): "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The trochee's insistently reverse rocking, beginning with that superstitious surd, thirteen, an indivisible number with no stable root, sets up an inverse poetics, or radical set of "Ways"—that is, passages or mental journeys—of "looking at" (not so much seeing) a bird the color, all colors, of the night. This is trickster stuff, as Ted Hughes darkly develops in Crow, the off-comic possibilities of god as Harlequin who tosses disappearing dice with reality. The poem shows us seeing a "black" bird as surd pronoun, it, treading syllabic night terrain, searching for winged focus on a disappearing, then reappearing radical. Call it the blackbird factor, the unpredictable quark of reality, the poem's decentering center. Disruptively patterned, this wild shadow is its own original being, in motion.

Oddly enough, the first tercet is a still scene, the minimalist quiet of Oriental landscape painting brushed with haiku delicacy. "Among twenty snowy mountains," the line opens, rising and falling reversely, "The only moving thing / Was the eyeof the blackbird." Can this be iambic meter, when six of the seven two-syllabled words are trochaic, and the second line enjambs a trochee spondaically, "thing / Was"? What are the metrics? Twenty-one syllables in three lines, 8/6/7 ,focus on "the eye" of a blackbird among "twenty" whitened mountains. The reader's eye and ear move back over the syllables, searching for clues to movement in the landscape, and fix, sideways, on the blackbird slanting at an angle. So the equation seems to be twenty mountains, plus one black eye (a perceptual pun?), in twenty-one micro-syllabics, or n + 1, as the blackbird factor to begin. We can always count on one radical in any given set, moving among counted numericals. Still more, while one blackbird eye moves visibly, the other remains hidden, we imagine (the back side of things), suggesting forces behind or beneath the surface visual image. (Not) see it new would be Stevens’s take on "Make it new," Pound's modernist formula from the Chinese. That which is beyond us remains irreducibly the Other, to be noted, respected, acknowledged, if not altogether seen. Like the other side of the globe, or the dark side of the moon, or the libido's reservoir in the id, we must also imagine it new, as this Other eye is always turned away, but always there. For Stevens, it must be imagined because it is, even if we can't quantify or touch it, as with an electron, a black hole, the square root of three, or a perfect human union. Shamanic riddles, the quizzical chill or slant truth of Dickinson's work, say, always lie hidden behind the mask, beneath the surface of ordinary things. There’s mystery in the old mundo, marvelous in the mundane, as ordinary things harbor extraordinary potential. This won't be an easy poem to track.

Through the rhyming acoustics of three, tree, and there, the second tercet toys with lingual, hence metaphoric triangulation: "I was of three minds, / Like a-tree / In which there are three blackbirds." Perhaps the optic reference is two eyes focusing on one tree, a + b = c, or in a folkloric vein, mortality witnessing the tree of life-and-death, the indivisible trinity completed on the cross (three is the first surd with no square root). Also note that it takes two eyes, focusing diagonally, to create one three-dimensional, in-depth image. Perceptual reality is complex, to say the least, and at its simplest, most mysterious (Leonardo spoke of "the vanishing point" in his three-dimension rendering of the Annunciation, Gabriel, Mary, and a distantly dissolving river). The meter of the third line is uncertain, "In which there are three blackbirds," perhaps, and the formal arc of the poem less and less calculable. Still, a unified diversity hovers there, one consciousness "of threeminds," like blackbirds three-in-one-tree. The poetics tilt dangerously off-center, just shy of nursery rhyme magic. Subtract an h, or add one and shift the r: the slightest change changes everything, three-treeee-there; yet the whole remains one cross-stitched homologue, an optic riddle and odd-sense rhyme.

The next couplet implies that the mind mimes the world it sees in motion, as a blackbird whirls in autumn winds. Nature shows itself a "pantomime" or dumb show without words, its essential action preceding language. The fourth section, all form lines starting with a, or alpha, hints that no anaphoral coupling, Adam to Eve, man to woman in the beginning, is complete without a decentering third radical, the blackbird factor. Union comes from disunion, as even turns on odd. The dark stranger—Pluto to Orpheus and Eurydice—thickens the plot radically, realistically. The unknown other to a given rhyme or couplet keeps the poem going (Pinsky's "pleasure of disturbance"). So far, the text is playing with parts-in-motion of a whole, jockeying for kinetic position to view the blackbird's collective facets.

The fifth stanza questions which tonal cadence most makes way for beauty, in-flec-tion or in-nu-en-do, "The blackbird whistling / Or just after." Is it accent, or afterthought, that suspends sense—the word spoken, or the reflective silence that follows? The plot is in the pause. Just so, shadow to caesura, the longer sixth section shows the triple remove of the blackbird's shadow, crossing icicles of "barbaric glass" outside a "long window." Here "barbaric" (from the Greek, ethnoi for foreigners who stutter bar-bar like sheep) modifies the scintillant dactyl, "icicles," and we sense how many optic removes the eye, a fluid sphere refracting light in a black pupil, must see through to catch a fleeting glimpse, a dark image of a darker flying object. Icicle, literally Old English "ice of snow," traces back through Frost's melting verse on a stove to the snow man's wintry Otherness, the "nothing that is" out there. The blackbird's shadow darts back and forth outside civilization's glassed house (again the empty jar's echo). The radicals of remove prove multiple, metrically tracing "in the shadow / An indecipherable cause," as Plath says pointillistically of the retreating horseman in "Words," those "indefatigable hoof taps." Window, shadow, to and fro, mood, and shadow come together as the first true rhymes of the poem: an echoing sense that we've reached an inner corridor, a winged truth.

In high rhyme now, the poet addresses those "thin men of Haddam" to ask why they follow Yeats to Byzantium after imagined "golden birds," when the real blackbird walks at the feet of their women, looking up. Not fantails, but fleshy feet give the physical downbeat of art ("let be be"), the "under"-standings that Poldy Bloom glimpses following a woman's skirt up the stairs, or admires on library chairs under reading women. High diction and formal metrics amount to little, lacking the ground sense and sensual counterstress of the blackbird's fetching antics, deconstructing all art that climbs too high. And so the bird flies off the page, over the horizon, "the edge / Of one of many circles," from viewer's eye to global curve; and just so quickly, it reappears in an Edenic green light, drawing bawdy cries of ecstasy. Recall the first poetic speech as interjection (Ah! or Ha!), here from "the bawds of euphony," those academic wenches of high art. Even critics can be moved from fustian to ecstasy by springing resurgence ("the green corn gleaming").

The eleventh set trips metrically uneven, the poet riding "over Connecticut / In a glass coach," again reminiscent of the artifice of the Tennessee jar. Through the rattling glass of a formal poetic (train) coach, a mistaking "fear pierced him"—the shadow of his carriage, that high-riding "equipage" of art, seems the steely shadow of the blackbird, a decreative omen sparking creative fear. And so, penultimately conclusive, the Heraclitean river flows ever onward, never to be stepped in twice the same, the blackbird still flying—and it is about to snow, that in-between "evening all afternoon," when slant light haunts the study, and the end anticipates a new beginning: "The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs." Cedar is the dream wood the world over, Lebanon to the Dakotas, the tree of seeing visions, and in it still sits the bird of all-colored night, shadow of shadows. In a world of radical unrest, he will momentarily close as the fixed radical, reality's shifting point-of-reference, just as the poem opened with one black eye among twenty snowy mountains. Poetry comes from a voice about to sing, Valery said, and Stevens's verse rises out of blackbirds soon to fly.

From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Regents of the University of California.


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