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Friday, June 04, 2010

Thirteen ways

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The Jungfrau in Switzerland is one of dozens of primary peaks of the Bernese Alps,
where I am standing in 1975 during my college study trip mentioned in the last post.



Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
~ from the poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" written in thirteen haiku-ish stanzas and published in 1917, was one of the first poems Diane Wakoski taught in my poetry class (in East Lansing, not Lauterbrunnen, alas). Thirteen Ways is an imagistic poem, a Modern (as in, the period) way of writing poems with clear, sharp language, unlike the focus on lyricism of the previous so-called Romantic period. Another famous Modern imagistic poem is Ezra Pound's short two-lines "In a Station of the Metro," written four years earlier after Pound was touched by a visual moment coming out of a Paris metro train:
    
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It's so zen. William Carlos Williams, another Modernist, suggested that when writing good poems there are no ideas but in things. In other words, paint images with things instead of descriptions. Show, don't tell.

Back to Thirteen Ways. Marvel-ous as our eyes are, we can't see twenty snowy mountains all at once. Our eyes have to scan gradually. We can't see the eye of the blackbird either, in a scene like that. Our brains are censoring what we perceive every second. I suppose most often our eye catches what is moving, like that blackbird's eye, if the moving thing is big enough to be perceived. But we can imagine the scene painted by Stevens in that stanza. It's one of the thirteen ways he paid attention to a blackbird. I've posted the whole poem below. I hear you sigh, either out of bliss, or out of poetry fatigue. Is it long? you ask. See, about the different ways?

Feel the mystery in each way he looks. In some of his lines I don't know what he means. What is Haddam, without looking it up? But it doesn't really matter, when he writes:

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Because he's not just writing about looking at a blackbird. Bien sur. We live in days of change and mayhem and people knowing about it like we've never known before, more than the terrible decade of WWI when these poems were written. There are "thirteen" ways of looking at anything. I kind of like how that slows things down.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
by Wallace Stevens

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.

Terresa's sensual womanly-writerly post Random Marigolds and Yosemites reminded me of this poem this week, which led to the post. 

Read more Wallace Stevens poems here. My favorite is The Snow Man, because I have a mind of winter too.
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34 comments:

Gwei Mui said...

I had heard of Wallace Stevens and even recall The Snow Man but for some reason now lost, Wallace remained at the back of my bookshelf. He will now be taken down and dusrted of and shown the light of day under my favourite tree in the local park. Thank you

*jean* said...

fabulous! thank you for the introduction to wallace! i'm off to read some more!!!

ellen abbott said...

Thanks Ruth. I've seen this referenced in another blog but never read it.

♥ Kathy said...

Oh that was just awesome! I loved it! And thank you again for your help ♥

gemma said...

Tea please.

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

I am so glad I have found your blog. You are a constant source and reminder of good things.

My mom was a Ruthie.

Terresa said...

Love that picture. My girlfriend is from Lucerne (she's been in the states now 11 years). Darned if I haven't been able to organize a trip with her yet through her home country (we both have 4 youngish, still growing up children). Someday...

I remember reading "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" back in college. I am just as much intrigued by his imagery and diction now as I was then. The "student of life" in me never ceases fascination with language, poetry.

Pound & WCW, yes, so good. I have been gathering and collecting poetry all week: Bishop, Oliver, Willard, Guest, adding to my collection and seeping myself to my ears in poetry.

Happy weekend, Ruth.

Terresa said...

PS: Thanks for the blog shout out. :)

Susan said...

The fifth one, definitely the fifth one. Thank you, Ruthie, that one is me.


Veri word: suffa...a poem title, I think.

Pauline said...

This was delightful to read - now I shall be looking for 13 ways to look at any number of things!

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, I can see you doing that, in your Barmy Park?

Ruth said...

Thanks, Jean, I just read some new ones yesterday, he's so good. I like "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman."

Ruth said...

You're welcome, Ellen. Enjoy your spring-summer reading.

Ruth said...

Thanks, ♥ Kathy, and you're welcome. :)

Ruth said...

Hi, Gemma, I'm glad you found sync too, because that meant I found you and your daybook. Mom was Ruthie? Smile.

You picked my favorite stanza.

Ruth said...

Terresa, I can picture you and Lucerne friend, alone wandering through Switzerland, or with 8 kids, peering out of trains.

I love Bishop (named my cat for her) and Oliver (no one does Nature better), but I don't know Willard and Guest. Will pursue.

Thank you, and happy weekend to you too!

Ruth said...

Susie, that's beautiful. Yes, I see that.

And suffa. Sufi. Sophia. Sofia. Sappho. Suffa.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Pauline, great, me too!

Ruth said...

Pauline, I've been trying, without success, to post a comment at your blog. It just won't load. I'll try again later. I love your starlings. I posted about them a while ago, with a youtube at the bottom that you should watch!

California Girl said...

Read this post first and then the Rhubarb post. You have a good memory of your trip, it sounds like.

In 1971, I went to the continent with my girlfriend. We backpacked for three months on $1100 each. Hard to imagine in this day and age. We stayed in Interlaken, at the base of the Jungfrau. It was my 20th birthday. We stayed in a beautiful little hotel owned by a Swiss lady. We had our first real fondue. What a great memory. Luckily, I have my diaries from the trip. They are packed away but I always thought they might make a nice story or set of stories some day. You have rekindled that idea.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

No matter how many times I read Stevens' "Thirteen Ways", there is always some new glint of light or meaning to be found.
I have always especially loved

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

It makes me ponder that sliver of an instant between the inflection and the innuendo, between the whistling and the after ...

Ruth said...

California Girl, you adventurer you. What you did with your friend would have been a good followup to my study trip - to be free and able to go wherever, whenever. I got weary of the day-to-day schedule, but it gave me a taste for where I wanted to go back. Sorry to say, I haven't been back to some of those. I wonder what the real fondue was? Meat? Cheese? Chocolate?

Yesterday I was feeling quite sad that the only photo I have left of that trip is this one. One night sleeping on a boat from Brindisi to Athens my camera was stolen - just a Kodak, but it had exposed film in it. But there were other slides, and I wonder where they've slipped off to.

Your trip to Maine looks gorgeous. Your husband is such a good photographer.

Ruth said...

Yes, Lorenzo, and the whistling is so much better because of the after, the memory of it.

Oliag said...

This makes me think I would love to take another poetry class...the last and only one being in the late 60's...This is delicious poetry...such delicious pictures these words give to me...and you caught what I love about V...that moment...I own few poetry books but Wallace Stevens is one of them...

...and one of my favorite quotes of his is "A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have." I like to think of this when I feel like I don't "get" a poem:)

Ginnie said...

Now that's the kind of telling I really like, Ruth. Very powerful.

Ruth said...

Oliag, "that moment" - Poems are snapshots, I think, ways to look closely. Thank you for sharing that quote of Stevens', because it shows perfectly the idea of showing, not telling.

Another poetry class sounds wonderful. Writing it, or studying what others have written?

Pauline said...

Ruth - your comment is there and I posted a link to your starling column. That video was amazing! Thanks :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, Boots.

Ruth said...

Oh, thank you, Pauline! That video still blows me away; I have watched it dozens of times.

Peter said...

Thrteen ways... This should teach us to better observe what we see and feel! I liked especially the "I don't know which to prefer ... The blackbird whistling Or just after." ... and of course the first charming photo!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Peter my friend.

Jeanie said...

I know of Wallace Stevens. I didn't know of his blackbird. I love his thirteen ways -- so much to ponder!

Vagabonde said...

My husband introduced me to Wallace Stevens and I have copied a couple of his poems in my poems document. I have The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; and so forth
His poetry is very evocative for me and I like his ways of looking at a blackbird.

Ruth said...

Jeanie, yes, I keep coming back to it every so often.

Ruth said...

Hi, Vagabonde, I'm glad you know Wallace Stevens and love his Snow Man.