11 December 2011


What was Wallace Stevens aiming at in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird?"  Some of the responses to my last 'opusculum' prompt me to essay an answer.  Questions were particularly raised about my description of the imaginary blackbirds in the strophe of the glass coach as "nonspecific, ordinary, accidental."  The following excerpts offer clues to what I understand Stevens to mean:
From "Anecdote of the Jar:"
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it, 
And sprawled around, no longer wild...

From "Study of Two Pears:"
          Opusculum paedagogum.
          The pears are not viols,
          Nudes or bottles.
          They resemble nothing else...
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

And from "The Snow Man:"
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time...
                                           ...not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind...
For the listener, who...
                    ...nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

What is Stevens saying?  I think he's talking about how we humans can't help searching for ourselves and our categories wherever we look.  We insist on extracting pattern out of random accident; unless hard-pressed, we mostly notice what we expect to find.  Stevens is fascinated by how we try to domesticate or gloss over what we perceive, rather than trying to take it in straight.

Consider, for example, strophe VI:
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.
This 'mood' looks for 'cause' (whether simple antecedent cause or demiurge) in the accidental: this is the Pathetic Fallacy, translated by 'indecipherable' into a Modernist irony.   'The mood'--not, we notice, 'my mood'--is not that of "The Snow Man:" it lacks "a mind of winter."

Here is strophe IV:
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.
How is the first couplet changed by adding a blackbird?  In one register, not at all: a blackbird has no place in the romantic context in which a man and a woman are one.  Consequently, the couplet's meaning is completely recast by the blackbird, which reminds us that such romantic oneness exists within a tiny parish of the incomparably vaster multiverse, which takes no account of our ideas.  As Blake also reminds us, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cleaves the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?"

Strophe X:
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
The bawds, I suppose, are those soi-disant bards (try saying that word as Margaret Dumont might've) who would prostitute their immediate, un-re-imagined apprehension of the world to an ideal beauty of utterance, perhaps akin to the "noble accents/ And lucid, inescapable rhythms" of strophe VIII.  In this moment the shocking and beautiful otherness of the Real overruns the habit of meretricious euphony.

Strophe XIII:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing,
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
The first line is a metaphor; the second and third slide from the present into an anticipated future; the three lines together carry a human sense of gloom and foreboding, and seem almost to attribute motive and being to a winter day.  This first tercet is a psychological operation.  To my ear, the last descriptive couplet insists on being resolutely unmetaphorical and atemporal by contrast.

As my friend Chick Chickering pointed out to me, blackbirds seem to evoke a sense of menace in many of these strophes, as in strophe XI, which I discussed earlier:
He drove over Connecticut in a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
Wallace Stevens is describing a typical human response--a hostile, even paranoid, response--to glimpsing the indifference of the Real to our abridged visions of the world.  An actuary in his virtual world of numbers is threatened by the surprising intrusion of blackbirds.  Even worse, these blackbirds are creatures of his mind.  This is truly the return of the repressed: I mean, that to go on believing that our human experience of the world really matters, we have to repress the knowledge that the (to quote myself) "nonspecific, ordinary, accidental," and supra-human Real is truly indifferent to our pretensions.   The rider in his glass coach has repressed it: therefore, he is haunted by looming blackbirds.  Deep down, we all know that our grandiosity is a brittle and graceless construction, like Ozymandias, broken by time into "a handful of dust."

Death is the ultimate manifestation of the indifferent Real.  All of our narcissism--our narcissism as individuals, as societies, and as a species--is structured as an effort to deny, denature, or domesticate death.  The paranoid hostility which I've claimed we feel--at our worst--towards whatever points up our inconsequentiality by refusing to be co-opted into our categories, is fueled at bottom by the fear of death, of the nothing that is [there]. Stevens's ominous black birds are liminal creatures, emissaries of the great world, to which we matter as little as any blackbird, and into which we shall all disappear, "on a day like any other day, only shorter," as Samuel Beckett tells us.  How like him, as Eeyore might say.  This is Stevens's "The Worms at Heaven's Gate" (Badroulbadour was Aladdin's princess):
Out of the tomb we bring Badroulbadour,
Within our bellies, we her chariot.
Here is an eye.   And here are, one by one,
The lashes of that eye and its white lid.
Here is the cheek on which that lid declined,
And, finger after finger, here, the hand,
The genius of that cheek.  Here are the lips,
The bundle of the body and the feet.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Out of the tomb we bring Badroulbadour.
Some might say that I have here perpetuated the same error which I claim Stevens is examining, by trying to extract an intellectual pattern out of art.  Like Eliot, however, Stevens is also an intellectual, a "metaphysician in the dark," as he says in "Of Modern Poetry."  He applies his metaphysical imagination to representing the Real as it resists mediation by ideas.  Representing, not depicting: "The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice" is an act of imagination, not intelligence.  For Wallace Stevens, the work of the imagination is all we have to set against what has been lost from our inexact maps of the territory we live in: it is our only respite from blackness.