8-Bit Poem: Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird

This is part of a new series in which I illustrate a poem in retro, 8-bit style, which I enjoy, and then talk about the poem. Below is my illustration:

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So what’s the poem that we’re reading today and stuff?

Today’s poem is Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” one of my favorite poems and also a very famous poem as well, as it happens. (And maybe click on the link and read the poem first, before I ruin it. Just a thought.) …ANY-way, Wallace Stevens was born in Pennsylvania, but spent most of his life living in Hartford, Connecticut (what a terrible fate). Though he won the Pulitzer Prize, he spent most of his life working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity insurance company (what a terrible fate).

Okay, so what’s the big deal about the poet?

Stevens was a modernist poet, and without getting into a long fucking definition of what modernism is, let’s agree to agree to pretend that we agree on this: modernism prizes words above realism. In illustration of this, Stevens once wrote this, in a poem:

“Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.”

He also wrote this:

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

[I] replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

…Where the “blue guitar” is obviously a stand-in for Steven’s poetry. The point of his poetry is to alter reality. There’s an old saying that goes: “Art is a mirror held up to nature”; to nature, or to the world. Stevens rejects this concept. The goal of his poems is to present ideas, not the world that contains the ideas. (And if you believe that the goal of art is to mirror nature, ask yourself this: why would we even need a second reality that is a mirror-image of the first?)

Uh-huh. So what does the poem mean then, genius?

…Nowhere is this collision between art and reality illustrated more profoundly than in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which is… words fail me… a poem about thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. The poem begins like this:

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

And then continues like this:

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

And then:

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

So far, so good… Each of the stanzas is divided from the other stanzas by a number, and there are (duh) thirteen stanzas in all. As the poem continues, the blackbird becomes less and less of a real thing — less of a real bird sitting in a real tree — and more of an idea, a motif. For example:

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

And as the poem continues, we are meant to understand that there are thirteen different speakers, not one, each giving us his own idea of a blackbird. The poem’s thesis has already been implied in its title: there is not one way of looking, but many:

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

…But which is the right way of looking? That’s the answer that the poem is (hopefully) leading us to.

Okay, so what’s the right answer?

Ha ha. There isn’t one. There isn’t a right answer.

But before we get into that, I should say briefly that Stevens was writing at the same time as William Carlos Williams, whose most famous (or infamous) poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” runs as follows–

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

It might be pointed out that this is the entire poem, and that for many people, it does not seem like a poem at all. But it is; it is a poem. It doesn’t seem like a poem to many people because it’s just normal, non-“poetic” words. But take it out of poetic form and you’ll see that Williams has created something entirely new:

“So much depends on a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”

…That’s what the sentence would look like if it was just a sentence, but it’s not a sentence that anyone would ever say, and put that way, it looks ridiculous. Who would ever say such a sentence? A crazed art student, maybe, visiting a barnyard? No. No one has ever said such a sentence in the history of the world, and no one ever will. That’s why Williams has created it. He has taken normal words and pounded them into art, hammered them into art, using his typewriter. So–

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

So much depends upon...”  But what depends upon a red wheelbarrow? Cunningly, Williams has not told us. But we may guess. Perhaps it is being able to see the world in that way that so much depends upon: being able to see the world in simple, honest terms, without any excess baggage. Being able to see the world as a unity: man, animal, nature — man-made wheelbarrow, natural rain from above, the busy animal life of the chickens, and all unified, none of them more important, none of them taking precedence above the other ones. Unity, simplicity, honesty, nature.  …What Williams is saying is that how we see the world is as important as what the world actually is. The image that we fashion of the world (in our heads, on our typewriter) is as important as what the world actually is, since all we have is a way of seeing. A way of seeing is the only way that we can approach the world. That’s what Williams is saying.

Uhhh, but let’s get back to Wallace Stevens, maybe?

Sure. Stevens is saying a similar thing in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but he’s going perhaps even further than William Carlos Williams does. Stevens is saying that there is not a single best way of looking at things, but many ways, none of them superior, all of them choices, and that we have to choose one. We must choose a way, but the way will be our own.

As the poem continues, we see more and more ways of looking at the blackbird:

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?

And–

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

At this point, the blackbird starts to become something of a running joke, like a running gag in a cartoon. Go away, stupid bird! we think. But it will not:

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

…It is very clear by now that there is no right way of looking at a blackbird. But then Williams brings us up short, stunning us with his final, lovely stanza (the thirteen). The best way, the right way to look at a blackbird, he suggests, maybe be to simply stand there and look:

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

But that is not the true moral of the poem. Not at all. William Carlos Williams once said this, “no ideas but in things.” Wallace Stevens has taken his idea of the world and made it into the concrete thing of a blackbird, just as Williams put his idea in the concrete thing of a wheelbarrow. And remember that Stevens said this: “Poetry is the supreme Fiction.” All the ways of looking at the blackbird are choices, decisions. Though the last stanza of the poem pretends at a sort of artless naturalism, in reality it is as much of a thing as all the other stanzas. It is still art, still something pounded into being, pounded into being by Stevens at his typewriter. There is no one way of looking at the world.

So what’s the moral then?

The moral (or the upshot) is this: the world exists. The world exists as a thing apart from us, a thing separate from us, for even though we are a part of the world, our consciousness exists as a thing separate from the world.

Certain ideas are persistent. (The idea of a blackbird can be persistent.) In our life, we have persistent ideas, and we use these to frame our reality. The idea can be anything: Jesus, a blackbird, the desire for wealth, the love of a good man or woman. We use these ideas to frame our reality, and our reality is affected by the way we choose to view it. Other poets suggest a best — a poetic — way of looking at the world. Stevens leaves the choice up to us. We will have to choose. We must choose. And in a way, we have already chosen.

That’s the moral (I think). But hey, I’m just some guy, you know? And you might have a different interpretation of the poem. So on the next page is the full poem for your perusal, because reading is good for you. Read it, come up with your own interpretation, and maybe draw a picture of the poem if you feel like it (I did). That is all. Shalom for now.

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