Friday, May 21, 2010

"Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird" by Wallace Stevens

For many weeks now a sole blackbird has been singing outside our window, morning and evenings. Sitting in one of the large trees it keeps unfolding its neverending and everchanging repertoire of variations over the present.

The colour black was never more fitting than on the hue of this bird. The deep peace the blackness promises keeps flowing from its orangish beak, and the rich silky texture of a deep and quiet layer of existence unrolls itself from its tones. They give me the sense of liquid black.

Wallace Stevens gives a series of haiku-like interpretation of the blackbird in this poem.

You don't know where the blackbird ends and silence begins.


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


This poem was published in Stevens' first collection of poetry, Harmonium - from which "The Wind Shifts" also comes.

Like the blackbird, Wallace Stevens is circulating the stillness and emptiness ("When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / of one of many circles" is one example). The whole tone of this poem seems to me that of simplicity emerging from a deep spring, just like the blackbird's song does.

And then there is the mysteriousness of the unwordable sensations the black and the blackbird evokes in us: "The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying." This I can very well understand, but can I explain it? It's like that other poem of his, "The Plain Sense of Things" -  "The great pond, / the plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves, / Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence/ of a sort". How do you explain the plain sense of things? You don't, you sense it and know it directly. In the same way existence plays itself out. 

Poetry and other kinds of art keep circling the circumference of something much more mysterious and deep than we tend to know, in this way hinting at a vast unspoken dimension. Wallace Stevens' take on the blackbird does this so beautifully and obviously that I probably don't need to write another line about it.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Wallace Stevens: The Wind Shifts

This poem by American poet and lawyer Wallace Stevens was published in 1923, when Stevens was 44 years old. The collection is called Harmonium and was, as far as I know, Stevens' first published collection of poetry.

His poems often have a refined tone, almost as if they are a little out of reach, like slightly unapproachable people who just seem to be a bit better than you in everything, without you really understanding how and why. This poem has a somewhat lighter or more simple tone than many of the poems I have read by him, but a simple surface tends to be quite traitorous.


This is how the wind shifts:
Like the thoughts of an old human,
Who still thinks eagerly
And despairingly.
The wind shifts like this:
Like a human without illusions,
Who still feels irrational things within her.
The wind shifts like this:
Like humans approaching proudly,
Like humans approaching angrily.
This is how the wind shifts:
Like a human, heavy and heavy,
Who does not care.


To me, this poem indicates that great responsibility is laid on our shoulders, that unclarity and unmetabolised thoughts and beliefs are quite as dangerous as more material or physical troubles. What we think and how we act do make an impact, and perhaps more than we normally think. Not only do we impact our surroundings, but also what one could call the human space - our shared sphere of ideas and movement of beliefs and values, really the overall level of consciousness which we create and sustain.

I think it is the general movement throughout this poem which speaks most directly to me. There is a windswept feeling as if someone is unsettling the balance of the finely tuned fugue of Being, gushes of air which are perhaps necessary in order to notice what one made unbalanced in the first place. There really is the sense of a great human breath here, a sense that all our mistakes, disruptions and disturbances of the global environment (spiritually as well as physically) are necessary and simply part of the way the human species is unfolding.

Naturally this reading is quite influenced from the climatic challenges we are now facing, but the sense of responsability and the invisible ways in which our thoughts and murky inner waters influence our space is quite striking to me in this poem. I think I'll explore Wallace Stevens' poetry more. It seems I can choose a random page of his collected poetry and find something of depth and refinement there. How much more recommendation do I need?