Study Guide

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Sound Check

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Sound Check

We'd love to hear this poem spoken by one of those automated voices, like the one people hear when they check the messages on their Voicemail. "You have…three…new…messages." Because the automated voice people haven't quite copied the infinite variations of human speech, that faceless man or woman you hear always sounds like he or she uses a lot…of awkward…pauses.

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" also has a lot of pauses, only they are more spread out. Also, they aren't quite so awkward. You could read the poem without any pauses, but then you would have to completely ignore the line breaks, which frequently occur right in the middle of sentences. The effect is the same as reading a Japanese haiku in translation, like this one by Matsuo Bashô:

An old pond —
The sound
Of a diving frog.

The haiku is so short that any pause feels like a gaping chasm of silence. For this reason, you would read "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" slowly. At about the same speed, in fact, as that nice automated voice from your cell phone. What was that?! Oh, it's just the sound of Wallace Stevens rolling over in his grave.

Apart from the poem's unique structure, Wallace Stevens can do amazing things at the level of each individual line. We'll just take the first line as an example:

A-mong twen-ty snow-y moun-tains.

Notice how the second and third syllables are accented, almost like a mini-mountain of sound within the first four syllables of the poem. And notice how he repeats the short "y" sound, as if tracing two tiny valleys. He uses sounds that actually bring to mind the image of mountains, if at a very abstract level. You can find this level of skill all over the poem. Just another reason why we love this Connecticut gent.

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