Feb 07 2014

Wallace Stevens – Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Published by at 9:05 am under Poetry

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
by Wallace Stevens

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

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.

— from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens

/ Photo by phoenix wolf-ray /

I once heard a story about Wallace Stevens: His work as an insurance salesman required him to spend a lot of time on the road. As his poetry gained recognition, he was offered academic positions to focus exclusively on his writing, but he refused to leave his job, saying that his poetry drew its rhythm from the steady flow of lines on the road as he drove.

I’d be hard-pressed to clearly define what I like about the poetry of Wallace Stevens, but I keep coming back to it with a smile. This poem, for example, his best known… it’s just one of those perfect poems. Each little verse is practically a haiku. The words don’t even entirely make sense, but they just pull you into the still, present moment.

These blackbirds haunt the frigid quiet and accent the bare landscape with their coal dark presence. Their watchfulness and small movements impinge upon our awareness, suggesting something of the void or an intelligence from some hidden realm reaching into the human world and whispering, “you are not all there is.” An intimation that is both hopeful and haunting — feelings entirely right for a cold winter’s day.

I read this poem on a snowy Colorado day, and the world goes quiet, dusk trickles in through bare branches, my misty breath lights up in the moonlight.

And, what is that? A blackbird? Or some watchful shadow of myself?

Wallace Stevens, Wallace Stevens poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Wallace Stevens

US (1879 – 1955) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. He attended Harvard as an undergraduate and earned a law degree from New York Law School. Admitted to the U.S. Bar in 1904, Stevens found employment at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. in Connecticut, of which he became vice president in 1934. In November 1914, Harriet Monroe included four of his poems in a special wartime issue of Poetry, and Stevens began to establish an identity for himself outside the world of law and business. His first book of poems, Harmonium, published in 1923, exhibited the influence of both the English Romantics and the French symbolists, an inclination to aesthetic philosophy, and a wholly original style and sensibility: exotic, whimsical, infused with the light and color of an Impressionist painting. More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life. Though now considered one of the major American poets of the century, he did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of his Collected Poems, just a year before his death. His major works include Ideas of Order (1935), The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937), Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (1942), and a collection of essays on poetry, The Necessary Angel (1951). Wallace Stevens died in Hartford in 1955.

— from Poets.org

More poetry by Wallace Stevens

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Wallace Stevens – Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

  1. Carolon 07 Feb 2014 at 10:54 am

    Oh, thank you Ivan. I am not really familiar with Wallace Stevens, but this poem
    is a joy now. It is cold and we have lots of blackbirds – and I will look at them
    differently now. It seems the poet does not take himself too seriously, but takes
    in the cosmos very seriously. The poem certainly brought a smile to my face, and
    I am sure the feeling will linger.

  2. Thomas Townsendon 07 Feb 2014 at 7:08 pm

    I work at a winter resort deep in the Cascade Mountains of Central Oregon. The only wildlife I see are blackbirds. It gets cold and lonely. I now know that I am not alone. I now know that there is more in these snowy mountains than just me. Thank you Ivan.

  3. Patricia Tayloron 07 Feb 2014 at 11:39 pm

    Thank you Ivan,
    I didn’t know Wallace Stevens. I did have to smile at your ‘bundle up’ comment. It is 43c or 109.4 degrees f here in Melbourne Australia. Outside my window, searching for relief, are four birds; none are black. Two King Parrots, red and deep green and two cockatoos, startingly white. Poor things. A change forecast tomorrow at 10:00 AM. Bring it on!

  4. Ivan M. Grangeron 08 Feb 2014 at 8:49 am


    You Aussies and South Africans are always messing with my Northern Hemisphere-centric seasonal comments…


  5. Lucienne Naber (Alluvja)on 08 Feb 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Thank you for this. The poem is of a amazing beauty and you’re so right in saying that each verse like a wonderful Haiku drawing you into the still present moment. That is exactly why I like haiku too, the combination of simplicity and elegance of words seems to evoke that kind of quality, power and presence in a poem.
    Honesty demands me to say I’m not really a fan of winter, i can enjoy a day or 2 of a besutiful snowlined landscape but then it better be spring as soon as possible.
    However this poem as well as your commentary gives me the joy of taking in the beauty
    of such specialness and endure the winter just a little bit longer.
    In deep appreciation,

  6. ebrahimon 09 Feb 2014 at 4:44 am

    Am still waiting for the day for the sun to rise and set in the south!!!

  7. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 09 Feb 2014 at 8:13 am

    YES, Ivan, I too am pulled into “silence of the present moment” in this poem in each stanza. I feel the meaning: seeing a single bird on the cedar limb; listening to the profound silence following the whistling. Yesterday I listened, really listened to the
    geese. I stood in a snow laden field in Long Island and they swished through crying out and vanished.-Ah the beauty of the silence which followed-sound and silence intertwined as one
    manifestation in my heart.

  8. Joyce Stahmannon 14 Feb 2014 at 8:28 am

    I read this poem decades ago, and thought it was interesting, but didn’t quite get it. Now at the age of 58 (instead of 30-something), I feel this poem resonating much more deeply, and love the hovering of death and other un-nameable experiences that are just out of sight!

    Thanks so much, Ivan, for your commentary also.

    I’d love a forum to share poetry that I have written–maybe a couple a year. Can we create that here?

    I so appreciate you and what you are creating here, Ivan!

  9. Ivan M. Grangeron 14 Feb 2014 at 9:52 am

    Hi Joyce,

    You know, I did actually host a forum through the Poetry Chaikhana for several years, and it inspired some wonderful poetry and conversations. But, at a certain point, it began requiring too much of my time, so I made the difficult decision to close the forum. If I have a bit more time in the future, perhaps I’ll start it up again…


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