Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

"Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird" is a poem from Wallace Stevens' first book of poetry, "Harmonium." It was first published in 1917, so it is in the public domain. [Buttel, p. 206.] It consists of thirteen short, separate poems, all of which mention blackbirds in some way. Although inspired by haiku, none of the segments is actually haiku.

"Thirteen Ways..." may be interpreted as one of Stevens's exercises in perspectivism, and accordingly may be compared to such poems as The Snow Man. The perspectives that matter for Stevens issue from the poet's imagination, which, somewhat in the spirit of philosophical nominalism, can unify the world in various ways -- for example, as a man and a woman, or a man and a woman and a blackbird (stanza IV). The artist's perspective may be shaped by what he attends to, as for instance on inflections or innuendoes -- the blackbird whistling, or just after (stanza V).

The poem's haiku-like austerity is striking. Affinities to imagism and cubism are evident. Buttel proposes that the title "alludes humorously to the Cubists' practice of incorporating into unity and stasis a number of possible views of the subject observed over a span of time." [Buttel, p. 165]

Sight is the dominant perceptual modality. The poems are almost cinematic, as though, in the first poem, a camera focused on a mountain panorama and then zoomed in to the blackbird and its roaming eye. There is reason to classify it as among the metaphysical poems in "Harmonium", because it creates an aura of mystery and intimates ineffable knowledge, perhaps conveying the message that 'death comes to all that lives.' But there are also grounds for classifying it as among the book's sensualist poems. "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas," Stevens remarks in one of his letters, "but of sensations." [Stevens, H. p. 252] (See the main Harmonium essay, the section "A flavorously original poetic personality," for the critic Joseph Fletcher's contrast between Stevens's metaphysical and sensuous poems.)

The poem has been the inspiration for at least two pieces of music: "Thirteen Ways", by Thomas Albert; [ [ "Thirteen Ways"] ] and "Blackbirds", for Flute and Bassoon, Gregory Youtz. [ [ "Blackbirds", for Flute and Bassoon] ]



  • Buttel, Robert. "Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium". 1967: Princeton University Press.

  • Sharpe, Tony. "Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life". 2000: Macmillan Press.

  • Stevens, H. "Letters of Wallace Stevens". 1966: University of California Press

    External links

    • Ethan Georgi's drawings []
    • Edward Picot's animated illustrations []

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