A friend told me that poetry once gave him a panic attack. Literally.
He was in high school. It was an assignment regarding Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Which is a fabulous, somewhat frightening poem. If you try to understand it, you could spend years. If you just cozy up to it, the way you would Poe’s raven, than it’s rather fun. Otherwise, panic is an acceptable response.
This friend is a writer. Still, somehow, poetry left a scar.
So I’m going to go through “Thirteen Ways” not because I understand it, but because I love blackbirds. Specifically, crows.
Over a decade ago, on a lovely spring afternoon, we had a crow encounter. My then elementary-age son was playing outside, using a pop-up tent as a secret lair. He’d pop in and out, changing identities. One of those required him to take off his glasses. He left them in the opening of the tent, and a crow swooped down and stole his glasses. I’ve been learning about crows ever since.
So, shall we enter into the panic zone together? Hold hands. Breathe normally. It’s just a poem.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I love this visual. I picture a snowy mountain range, like the one from the porch of the cabin we’ve often visited at Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado. It’s snowing over those 20 mountains, making them less visible. Snow makes a faint sound while falling. The only non-white thing is the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
Now I’m picturing a spring scene, when the crows are at their crowy-est. I see a tree with three blackbirds in it. Why are they there? I don’t know, but blackbirds do like trees. Why is the narrator of three minds? Maybe one for each blackbird?
That’s a fun thought. What might be in the minds of three individual blackbirds? Do they all think alike? Is one of them super annoying? If I were to write dialogue for the three blackbirds, what would they say?
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
Now it’s autumn. I’m thinking of leaves swirling in the autumn wind. I’ve never thought of that as a pantomime, but hey, sure. That’s good. Leaves and blackbirds part of the pantomime. Mime indicates intention, so there’s some there there. I never thought about that autumn wind dance being anything other than random. Hmm.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
No earthly idea what it means, but it’s delightfully creepy. I’ve often written about crows as the bad things in my life that are there and just don’t care two pecks about me. So now I’m picturing my husband and me and a blackbird swirling over us. We are all three one. Now I am seriously disturbed.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
You’re darn right the blackbird is going to whistle after your beautiful inflection, your beautiful innuendo. I’m actually hearing the tune from “Mockingjay” right now.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
Winter again. “Barbaric glass”—interesting adjective. I suppose glass is barbaric to birds that crash into it. That used to happen all the time in the back living room of my parents’ house, which was once a porch they converted into a proper room. Yes, I’m sure the shadow of blackbirds crossed that glass, to and fro.
I like how “shadow” and “indecipherable cause” fit together.
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 don’t know where Haddam is, and I’m not going to look it up. “Thin men” is not only an excellent description, but it rhymes. These are the kind of men I do not want my daughter to date, men who imagine—perhaps even daydream—about golden birds.
In contrast, blackbirds are not an endangered species. They are everywhere. If they are walking around the feet of women, and the women happen to be wearing skirts, well, those blackbirds know more than they are telling.
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
Going with my personal metaphor of blackbirds being bad stuff in my life that doesn’t care about me, I say Amen. I try to be noble. Occasionally, I am lucid. My life falls into inescapable rhythms, like brushing my teeth before bed. And yes, the blackbirds are involved in it all. I don’t know how, but they are. Being more lucid or more noble or cultivating better rhythms doesn’t shoo them away.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
This is just beautiful. Think of how birds fly, sometimes making circles. Suddenly those circles are there, but we can’t see them until they mark their edges in flight. When they birds fly out of sight, if we’ve been paying attention, sometimes we still see the circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
Green light! Gatsby!
One time for a story I did a bunch of research on the weather phenomenon called the “green flash.” That’s what I picture now. I don’t know what a “bawd of euphony” is, but if I ever were to see blackbirds flying in a green light, I’d sure as heck 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
See, this is what happens when you spend too much time around those pesky blackbirds. You end up in a glass coach, and you know what they say about glass houses. You experience strange fears. Mere shadows become threatening. This is getting more Poe-like by the minute.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
This couplet takes me to “A River Runs Through It.” I’m there, on the bank. My dad is fly-fishing in the middle of it all. The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying. All I have to do is look for it.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
This is the kind of scene a Central Texan like myself can only dream of. Yesterday it was evening all afternoon, and while I was at the dentist, we all remarked that if it were only, oh, 20 degrees colder, it would snow. We all wanted to be home, trapped, where it would be snowing and it was going to snow. I’d have my husband build a fire in the fireplace, pull the dog bed close by, brew more hot tea than usual, and look at the blackbird sitting in those damn cedar-limbs that are making everyone miserable. (For those of you north of the Red River: cedar fever.)
But Megan, what does the poem mean?
I don’t know. And if you know, for heavens sake, please don’t tell me. If you are the ghost of Wallace Stevens, hush.
The poet Stuart Kestenbaum once said about one of his poems, “My poem off in the world meeting other people and learning about itself.” This poem met my friend and did a number on him. It ran into me and my bizarre crow metaphors and, well, sorry Mr. Stevens.
Once the poem is off in the world, it learns about itself. It is the blackbird. There are always at least thirteen ways of looking at it.