Sunday, January 13, 2008

Doug's Poetry Spot

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
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.

In this poem, Stevens is trying to express what is inexpressible. He does this by circumnavigating the the blackbird (that which is unsaid), looking at it from different points of view. The blackbird is a nostalgia for that which you never had, an experienced condition, a state of mind (or, as Stevens has it, states in the plural.) Part of why it is inexpressible because whenever you look directly at it, it disappears.
In the Book of Five Rings, Musashi writes that when you make a bowl, what you are making is the empty space in the center. The walls of the bowl contain it, but it is the space itself that is the essential thing. Traditionally, in European thought, there are form and substance. Substance itself is formless, and cannot be sensed; yet it is the essential thing. This is what Stevens is referring to when he writes:
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
The blackbird isn't comfortable to observe; it can inspire fear or wonder. It is weird, eerie, and essentially odd: that is why there are thirteen poems, and three blackbirds in the tree.
The feeling in this poem is very much like what haiku (at least, Basho's haiku) is trying to express. Haiku has almost nothing to do with the number of syllables: in translation, sticking to the form is unnatural. What haiku is almost always about, what it is for, is to evoke a single shared instant, the mood of an indecepherable cause.

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