Saturday, October 23, 2010

13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Poetry is an escape from personality. Those who comprehend it realize it's basically a falsehood that speaks the truth. Even if poetry has meaning, which it occasionally does or so I've been told, perhaps it is not wise to draw it out -- understanding it may destroy the pleasure.

Many moons ago, I was a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in mathematics. During my freshman English class, a required course, the instructor gave us an assignment to write a paper on the meaning of a poem titled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens.

No big deal, I thought -- only 13 stanzas containing 246 words.

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

Well, it turned out to be a big deal. After reading it 13 times, I still came to the same conclusion -- some clown jotted down a series of random thoughts, as if doodling with words, and it had no obvious meaning other than it probably had to do with something other than blackbirds.

Rather than bang my head against the wall, I showed the poem to a friend named Glenn, a sophomore English major. Glenn was happy to explain, with the aid of multiple beverages made from hops, over the course of a couple of hours, the tiers of deep meaning within the poem.

It had to do with the insights of how people think and what it means when someone finally figures it (life) out. The poem starts with the perception of the blackbird from the point of view of an observer, followed by the intellectual process of the observation, followed by the intellectual process of the blackbird itself and what it must be like to be a blackbird. In the process, "a man and a woman and a blackbird are one" -- just as "all is one" in the scheme of the universe and beyond. Additionally, it has something to do with commonality, the basic human ego, and that our identities as base humans is spiritual enough. The black bird is a common bird, but its very existence in this poem seems to be linked with natural processes, as if the act of observation on the part of our egos is the act of holding the creation together. The conclusion seems to deal with the shortcomings of our egocentric lives, thus it was thereby structured in such a way to reflect the human thought process.

Glenn went on to proclaim that it was written in such a fashion so as to allow for multiple interpretations of its meaning. For example, if the blackbird represented the human thought process, the piece had one meaning. If the blackbird represented God, it had another meaning. If the blackbird represented death, it had yet another meaning. And so forth. Seemingly endless possibilities, primarily depending on when the supply of beverages made from hops would cease to exist.

By the time Glenn was done explaining the meaning of the poem, I walked over to the nearest wall and banged my head 13 times. It was like trying to explain the meaning of an abstract painting of a small red circle within a large random splatter of black paint -- 13 different observers would come up with 13 different interpretations, when in fact the artist simply splattered some black paint on a canvas and inserted a red circle for no particular reason other than it felt like the thing to do at the time.

In any event, I wrote some gibberish about the poem relating animal life to human life and concluding there was sort of comparable relationship. Since I really didn't have a clue about the poem, I did a lot of bluffing and compared it to the passage of a full human lifetime based on a couple of lines ("the river is moving" and "when the blackbird flew out of sight, it marked the edge of one of many circles").

In the end, I got a "C" in freshman English, no doubt well deserved for my ability to portray knowledge without actually attaining it. Elsewhere I did better, including an "A" in integral calculus -- you can't bluff in a math course, so I was forced to learn it.

Glenn went on to become a successful professional photographer. I went on to become a successful professional bum (computer programmer, independent contractor, mountaintop hippie, gold prospector, desert rat, novelist, computer consultant, wandering adventurer, newspaper columnist, college instructor, reclusive hermit).

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955) was a lawyer for an insurance company who probably had lots of idle time at his desk to jot down random thoughts (doodles), which later became poems. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1955.

Sometimes, one person's mind doodles become another person's meaning of life. In the end, a poem points to nothing but itself.

Quote for the Day -- "Blackbird singing in the dead of night... Take these broken wings and learn to fly... All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise." Paul McCartney and John Lennon

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and where the beauty of innuendoes whirled among the thin men of Haddam where the bawds of euphony sat in the cedar-limbs beyond the long window of barbaric glass in the shadow of the blackbird. His blogs appear on several websites, including


Danielle said...

So, you graduated with a degree in computer programming (and a A in integral mathematics) and didn't see the resemblance between the poem and derivatives? I'm no mathamatician (I only had to complete pre-calculus), but I still began to see what looked like fractions, ratios, and geometric shapes in the poem. Just a thought. I'll definitely bring it up on poetry class tomorrow. Let me know your thoughts.

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