Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Wallace Stevens' blackbird

rusty blackbird

One of my favorite poems is Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." I think it would be one of my favorites even if I wasn't into birds.

Recently, from an ornithological perspective, I've been wondering what sort of blackbird Stevens was writing about. He was an American (born in Pennsylvania), so I am assuming that he was picturing an American species of blackbird when he composed these lines.

But I just can't picture our most common blackbird, the red-winged, as the subject of this poem. When the poem states,

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

I just can't picture the red-winged cocky "conk-la-ree!!" call as the blackbird's enigmatic whistle. And the call of the yellow-headed blackbird is even more comical. No, as cool as those birds are, I can't see their call as an inspiration for poetry.

So I always pictured a grackle as Stevens' blackbird, as it is a black bird. But still not a blackbird.

Why didn't I think of a rusty blackbird? Probably because they are disappearing so quickly, I haven't even seen one until recently. As the ebird database article mentions, this once abundant (certainly in Wallace Stevens' time) species has declined by 85-99%.

Those figures completely boggle my mind. 99 percent? As in, 99 out of every hundred there used to be are now gone? And no one even knows exactly why.

So it shouldn't surprise me that it was only recently that I saw my first rusty blackbird (as I described it in my bird journal, as brown-headed as a cowbird, but with cunning yellow eyes.) And it was only this spring that I finally heard their strange, rusty-hinge call.

So was Wallace Stevens' inspiration a rusty blackbird? I will let you be the judge.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I love this poem, too, and verse XIII, especially, resonates with me today, given out weather. "It was evening all afternoon. etc" It could be a rusty blackbird, although I have always felt that it was more of a metaphoric blackbird. It breaks my heart that the rusty blackbird is so endangered; what could be so wrong? Habitat loss, of course, but what else? MOM