Friday, April 24, 2009

Wallace Stevens: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, Part I

Wallace Stevens has always been one of my favorite poets. Partly for his work, but partly for his life as well. He worked most of his life, full-time, at an insurance company after graduating from law school. I like the idea that he didn’t feel that he needed to live as a poet (whatever that might mean) to write poetry.

So, in continuation of the celebration of National Poetry Month, I wanted to talk a little about his iconic poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The first thing you notice about the poem is its modernity. Like most modern poetry it’s not so much about the thing itself as about how we think and talk and look at the thing—here a blackbird.

In keeping with the title, the poem has thirteen stanzas, each containing one image of a blackbird, each distinct, almost Japanese in the sparseness of its aesthetics. One of my favorite is Stanza II.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The image is extremely spare. Only fourteen words are used and only the last one, blackbirds, has more than one syllable. The idea, however, is as complex as the language simple. I think we often don’t admit the extent to which all of us hold different and contradictory opinions at the same time. We feel more than one way about the same event or idea. Pollsters take advantage of this fact by asking a question that taps directly into one of those opinions without giving rise to the opposing impulse—all kinds of studies have shown that the answer may depend on how you ask the question. I find the most interesting ideas are in exploring those contradictions.

I know that on some issues that I have gone years without resolving the issue in my own mind. The poet John Keats named this idea “negative capability”—the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time. If we want to learn about ourselves, then I think we need to make those contradictions manifest so we can explore why we believe as we do and whether the contradictions in our mind can be resolved.

In any event, Wallace Stevens gives us an image to stand for our contradictory mind: a tree with three blackbirds. The tree is one thing and the birds are within its space. But the birds are distinct, individual and capable of taking off in their own direction at any moment. Our opinions exist similarly within our mind.

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