Blackbirds – Brief Poems by Wallace Stevens

WallaceStevens6Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is one of my favourite poets. I first came across his poetry over 40 years ago when I heard the Professor of English at University College, Dublin, Denis Donoghue, intoning “Sunday Morning”  in a lecture hall. I was entranced. I went out and bought the Faber “Selected Poems.” Later I managed to track down a more substantial selection, “The Palm at the End of the Mind”, edited by his daughter, Holly Stevens. I also bought the essays collected as “The Necessary Angel”. These poems and essays continue to entrance. I have returned to them frequently over the years. (There is also the story of my failed effort to find the grave of Wallace Stevens in Hartford, when I went with a friend of mine, Jack Lyons of the Irish Transcendental Meditation Centre, in the 1970’s. But that is for another day and for chieffallingleaf.)

Although he has written “Adagia”, a series of aphorisms in prose, his poetry is at its best when it is at its most extensive and expansive. One of his most celebrated poems, however, is like a series of haiku. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” may, in some of its sections, exceed the limitations of a tweet. But I include it in full because there is an exception to every rule and because I like it.

I also include a very brief poem, “To the Roaring Wind”, which Stevens placed at the end of his first collection, “Harmonium”. The seeking and speaking of syllables by this great “Vocalissimus” of twentieth century poetry has led to some of the finest poems ever written. Enough said.


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


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.


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?


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.


To the Roaring Wind

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.




Some of the Adagia from Opus Postumous.

A Wikipedia page on the poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.

A critical analysis of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by four commentators on the Modern American Poetry site.

A reading of the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Tom O’Bedlam.

Denis Donoghue on metaphor in Wallace Stevens.




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