Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Introduction
In A Nutshell
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is exactly what its title suggests. No tricks, no gimmicks, no sleights of hand. In thirteen brief, mysterious sections, the American poet Wallace Stevens initiates us into the world of the blackbird, a bird so common you probably wouldn't pay attention to it if you saw one. These are the kind of birds that like to hang out on telephone wires, sit in bare tree branches, or peck at the ground on the side of the road. But Stevens's poem makes us look at the blackbird in new ways, and, by the time you finish reading it, you feel as if you could write the entry for the species in the Audubon Society's birding handbook.
Stevens might be the most important American modernist poet, and by "American" we're not counting people (T.S. Eliot, cough, cough) who left the country for Europe. Modernism is a very loose term for the literary movement that developed after World War I, and reflects the distinctive character of the modern world, with its banks, telephones, guns, automobiles, and whatnot.
Compared to our idea of rebellious, wild-eyed poets, Stevens was kind of like a blackbird himself: he didn't stick out. He spent most of his life working at insurance companies and lived in a run-of-the-mill Connecticut suburb. But don't be fooled: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a wild literary trip, as original as anything written this century. The poem seems to be inspired by the haiku, a very short Japanese poetic form that captures intense imagery like a lightning flash. You'll often find references to birds and seasons in the haiku, as you will in this poem. Stevens collected Asian artworks, and the influence of Asian traditions is obvious here. You could compare the effect of parts of the poem to a Zen riddle like, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
"Thirteen Ways of Looking a Blackbird" was first published in a literary journal in 1917, and it later became one of the signature works of Stevens's first poetry collection, Harmonium. Talk about a late-bloomer: Stevens didn't publish Harmonium until 1923, when he was 44 years old! Despite his late start, he went on to have a long and storied literary career. In 1955 he was awarded the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
Why Should I Care?
Thirteen Reasons You Should Care About This Poem:
- You want to be a Zen master without having to attract disciples or move into the mountains.
- Most of the things we read require us to follow the thread of some idea or argument, but this poem has no complicated narrative, no "message," no unified theme. In a letter, Stevens wrote, "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations" (source). In other words, you're not supposed to understand the poem, you're supposed to feel it.
- Stevens in the master of turns of phrase. See, for example, "bawds of euphony" and "barbaric glass."
- You see blackbirds everywhere – on telephone wires, on the side of the road. You might as well get to know them better.
- The poem shows that all the inspiration you'll ever need is usually no further than the view outside your window.
- You want to write your own "Thirteen Ways" poem.
- It's the perfect complement to the song "Blackbird" from The Beatles's White Album .
- Each section of the poem is like a Polaroid snapshot.
- You can read it as a hilarious parody of someone trying to be profound: "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one."
- If you have a gong, try hitting it once after reading each section aloud.
- It gives you an excuse to buy a gong.
- It gives you an excuse to buy Harmonium, one of the most beautiful poetry collections of the past century.
- The blackbird wants you to care. Nobody wants to disappoint a blackbird.