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"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.
Thirteen Reasons You Should Care About This Poem:
The University of Pennsylvania provides a collection of sites and links related to Wallace Stevens, including his obituary.
The Poetry Foundation presents a solid biography of Stevens and a wide selection of poems.
On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"
The Modern American Poetry site provides scholarly analysis of the poem.
Black on Black
A slide show set to "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
A contemporary composer turns the poem into a song cycle, with paintings.
Wallace Stevens Reads His Poetry
Hear the voice of the master.
A reading of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
Blackbirds in Bare Branches
Blackbirds + winter = haunting beauty.
The Blackbird, Up Close and Personal
See what all the fuss is about.
Collected Poetry and Prose
You only need to buy one book (just one!) to own everything that Wallace Stevens wrote. And trust us, it's all worth reading. Twice.
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire
Harvard Professor Helen Vendler is an influential literary critic and a champion of Stevens's work.