“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF WALLACE STEVENS: THE CORRECTED EDITION, edited by John N Serio and Chris Beyers, New York: Vintage, 2015.
Wallace Stevens was an American modernist poet who was born in Pennsylvania in 1879. He worked as an executive for an insurance company in Connecticut, but when he had free time, his imagination took over, and he wrote beautiful poems. In 1954, he wrote “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a gorgeous poem that describes a blackbird on windy days and in cold seasons. Each of the 13 short stanzas shows one perspective of the blackbird without giving the reader any background story. Instead, the poet intertwines imagery, musical terms, and euphoric sounds to engage and encourage the reader to dive deeper when interpreting the poem.
What I like the most about the poem is the imagery, which replaces a strict storyline. Imagery, in any form of literature, is very powerful because it allows the reader to place herself within the scene that’s being described. With imagery, descriptions are much more intriguing and vivid to the reader. For example, the lines “At the sight of blackbirds / Flying in a green light” gave me the warm and magical feeling of traveling through sunlight filtered between green leaves.
There are also less straightforward images in the poem that left me entranced and contemplating the meaning of each line. For instance, when I read, “When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles,” I didn’t know how to interpret it at first. But then I thought of the last two lines of the previous stanza, “. . . the blackbird is involved / In what I know.” This made me think of the bird flying into the narrator’s mind and leaving a mark on him, one of the many things he will carry with him in his life.
Along with the imagery, the fifth stanza really stuck out to me because I am a violinist. It reads, “I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” In music, an inflection is a change in pitch, which can be achieved by doing vibrato—that is, creating an echoing sound that makes the note a hundred times livelier. On the other hand, an innuendo is the aftermath of an increase or decrease in volume. It’s like the whisper that comes through half-open windows, the sound of wind through curtains. As a musician, I loved how the blackbird is portrayed as a very delicate instrument, and it helped me appreciate the bird’s song in a way I hadn’t before.
But it’s not just musical terms that give this poem its melodic feeling. The poet also uses phrases that sound like what they describe, which gives the poem a fun edge. For example, the first stanza reads, “Among twenty snowy mountains, / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird.” When you read this out loud, the phrase, “twenty snowy mountains,” actually sounds like the mountain peaks because the words’ stresses move up and down at a quick pace. Say it out loud, you’ll see! Also, in the line, “The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds,” the words “whirled” and “winds” capture the sound of circular gusts of wind.
As a whole, this poem is packed with graceful imagery and interesting sounds, which left me in a trance after reading it. The writing conveys many feelings and effects: stillness, playfulness, mystery, and nostalgia. Because the poem’s meaning isn’t straightforward, it pushes readers to ask themselves questions about what the blackbird symbolizes and encourages readers to discover its many meanings. So I want to ask you: what do you think? How do you interpret this poem? What do you think the blackbird means in each stanza?