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Wallace Stevens's 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird': Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:07 Wallace Stevens and Modernism
  • 0:55 'Thirteen Ways of…
  • 3:21 'Thirteen Ways' ... And Haikus
  • 4:30 'Thirteen Ways' ...…
  • 5:02 Meaning of 'Thirteen Ways'
  • 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Wallace Stevens' poem 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' is an important American modernist poem that can be seen in several different ways. Read on to find out more about the poem and how to analyze it. Then, test your knowledge with a quiz.

Wallace Stevens and Modernism

Wallace Stevens was a modernist poet who incorporated many styles into his poems. Modernist poets did away with the traditional form of poetry, instead preferring to use simple language and break from traditional rhyme and meter. Most of the modernist poets wrote for ordinary people. That's why they preferred to use simple language: They wanted to make poetry more accessible for everyone, not just for the people who had gone to expensive, exclusive colleges. But Wallace Stevens was different. He wanted to challenge his readers and often wrote poetry that was specifically geared toward people who were college-educated and familiar with forms and ideas that he used. In other words, his poetry can be a bit harder to understand.

'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'

Let's look at Stevens' most famous poem, 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,' and then we'll examine three ways to interpret the poem.

'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

II

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.

V

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

VI

Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.

VII

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?

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

X

At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.

XI

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.

XII

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

XIII

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

'Thirteen Ways'...and Haikus

Did you notice how each of the 13 ways is divided into its own short, simple stanza? Each one could kind of be seen as its own little poem. Many people have pointed out the way the stanzas of this poem are similar to haikus. A haiku is a short Japanese poem, generally with three short lines, for a total of 17 syllables. Stevens might have been influenced by haikus when he wrote the stanzas. Though none of the stanzas are haikus in the strictest sense, many of them are sparse like haikus are. Look at the first and second stanzas again:

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

II

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

You'll notice that each of these has very few words. In fact, they have just enough words to offer the barest outline of an image or idea, but not enough for the reader to fully see what Stevens is describing. There's a lot left to the imagination, which is very common in haiku verse.

'Thirteen Ways'...and Imagism

This poem also has a lot in common with imagism. Imagism is a poetry movement where the most important thing is to describe something very simply and with no extraneous words. This poem is full of simple descriptions of things. Consider the 12th stanza:

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

This stanza by itself could be an imagist poem: It simply describes something and lets the reader decide what the image means, if anything.

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