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a poem by Wallace Stevens

March 12, 2009

In today’s episode of our on-going quest for the elusive marriage of form and content, we look at a poem by the great Wallace Stevens:


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.


Stevens clearly goes beyond simply using the classical definition of form which strictly involves rhyme, meter, and stanzaic pattern. Instead, the form itself is an exploration of form and its hand in defining the poem; it presents an enumeration of 13 possible permutations of something. Very fittingly, the title of another Stevens poem describes the genius of this technique: “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself”.

The poem’s variations on a theme reminds me of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral Series in its philosophical inspection of detail and mastery of nuance.

That last stanza is placed just so and resonates the most; I have not come across a more vivid description of the incessant snow in winter.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. iheartfilm permalink
    March 12, 2009 10:45 pm

    I think the best thing about Stevens’ work is that even though it became less and less obviously formal as he got older, it still exhibited an undeniable sense of order. The tempo of his lines was exquisite.


  2. mnemosynewrites permalink
    March 12, 2009 10:53 pm

    Well said.
    I often go back to his “The Idea of Order at Key West” for an example of stylistic control. It’s absolutely timeless.

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