Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird Essay Outline

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a vastly influential Modernist poem by Wallace Stevens. It was first printed in October 1917 in Others: An Anthology of the New Verse, and then in Stevens' groundbreaking first book, Harmonium. The poem is exactly what the title promises, with extreme precision: thirteen short, imagistic sections loosely connected by the common presence of blackbirds. The poem has inspired musical compositions, other literary works, and countless titles following the "Thirteen Ways..." formula.

Each of the thirteen haiku-like stanzas moves in its own unique way, and many would be beautiful poems by themselves. The ubiquitous blackbird takes on as many unique meanings: as a visual spot of black or shadow, as music, and as a thought that can inspire wonder or terror.

The thirteen sections do not come together in a neat or singular statement, but rather present truth as a mosaic, in which the blackbird acquires its various meanings based on how we perceive it. Because Stevens considers it from so many angles, the blackbird becomes a focal point of relationships among humans and nature, a creature to which anything can be compared and through which everything is interconnected. The poem invites its readers to see many meanings in nature, and also challenges the reader in moments when the attempt to find a symbolic meaning fails. Ultimately, the poem is capable of creating an overall mood of tranquility, doom, or any mix of these, depending on the symbolism one reads into each image of the blackbird.

The title of Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” is misleading, because he does not only offer thirteen ways of looking at blackbird, but the poem offers us many insights on how humans think. “Blackbird”, written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, has many similarities with “Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackbird” other than just their titles. They use many poetic conventions to explain their poem’s ideas, both writers use a blackbird to compare to humans and human nature, and imagery plays a big role in getting across their points.

Sometimes poets use different conventions to give the poem a better “flow.” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, by Wallace Stevens uses assonance to make the poem have a better sound or to give it a better “flow.” Assonance is the repetition of vowels with different consonants. An example is stanza three of Steven’s poem:

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

In the first line, “i” is repeated four times in blackbird, whirled, in, and winds. In the second line, “a” is also repeated four times in was, small, part, and pantomime. McCartney’s and Lennon’s song “Blackbird” uses anaphoras, which are repeated phrases at the beginning of a verse, throughout the poem. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night,” and “you were only waiting for this moment to…” are the two most obvious anaphoras used. As a reader of the poem, these repeated lines stand out and grab the reader’s attention. When finished with the poem, these lines will be the ones that stick with the reader. “Blackbird” also uses end rhyme and half rhyme, unlike Steven’s poem. An example of the end rhyme used in the lyrics:

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

The author of “Blackbird” also used half rhyme.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

This rhyming scheme is again, used to both to emphasize those phrases and to make me poem more interesting to read. An interesting thing about Stevens’ poem is that it seemed like each stanza was a separate haiku poem. Since this poem revolves around nature, a haiku style fits it well because they too, are usually about nature. The haiku style also helps to further separate the thoughts of the writer.

Both writers use a blackbird to help describe humans and human nature. In the second stanza of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, Stevens uses a blackbird to help us to understand more about ourselves:

I was of three minds

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

In this stanza, Stevens compares our mind to a tree with three blackbirds. This comparison reveals that many times we have conflicting opinions within ourselves, just like three blackbirds “bickering” in a tree. Stevens further develops the thought of “three minds” in stanza five:

I do not know which to prefer;

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

This stanza shows the conflicting opinions that can occur within a person, just like three bickering blackbirds in a tree. Like Wallace’s poem, the Beetles also used a blackbird to show us something about ourselves. The lyrics of the song tell us to take advantage of given opportunities, even with the conflict of fear:

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Stevens then addresses a characteristic of the human imagination:

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?

The line “why do you imagine golden birds” warns us that it is human nature to try to obscure reality with our imagination. Which is kind of ironic, because many times it seems our imagination plays a role in helping us to see the reality around us. “O thin men of Haddam” is describing the people in a small town in Connecticut. In stanza eleven, Connecticut is mentioned again:

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 imagination of people is mentioned again when a man, possibly from Haddam, gets scared when he thinks the shadow from his glass coach is a flock of blackbirds. But how does a glass coach cast a shadow? Why are there now multiple blackbirds?

Poets have many tools to convey what they are trying to say, but the most effective and interesting way is by using imagery. This puts a picture in the mind of the reader to go along with the words. Imagery is used many times in both “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “Blackbird.” The best example of imagery from Wallace’s poem is found in stanza six:

“Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro…”

This stanza portrays a feeling of being enclosed in a room. The icicles that fill the window remind us of bars on a jail window, which portrays a closed-in feeling. How does this affect how we see the blackbird? Through the window we cannot see the blackbird itself, possibly referring to the beauty of inflections in stanza five. We can, though, see the blackbirds shadow, possibly the beauty of innuendoes? This closed-in feeling depicts how, many times, we limit ourselves to our own preferences and opinions.

As you can see, Stevens uses his imagery to present symbolic elements in his work. In the song “Blackbird,” Lennon and McCartney use imagery mostly to put a mental picture in the readers mind. An example would be: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night,” which presents the conflict of contrasting thoughts.

Stevens, Lennon, and McCartney effectively use poetic conventions in their works. These elements, along with symbolic uses of imagery, combine to present opinions of humans and human nature.

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