Monday, March 30, 2009

Thirteen Ways

(image: Wallace Stevens)

We're going to discuss Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" today in the poetry-writing class. Then we'll do some writing based on prompts springing from the poem--and from other poems that express multiple perspectives.

Arguably, the poem is Stevens at his best: philosophical but whimsical, very playful with language, and pleasantly self-conscious about imagination and imagining. The poem is indelible.

For some reason, I don't like his use of Roman numerals to number the sections. They seem too heavy for the poem--maybe that's it.

If forced to pick a favorite way, I'd probably go with XII:

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Here we have quintessential "poetic 'logic,'" and also the kind of primitive logic that sometimes operates when one is in or around nature. The lines provide the kind of "leap" that Robert Bly treasures and that he claims isn't in American poetry to a sufficient degree. I also appreciate how comparatively flat the phrasing is--in comparison to that of other sections, where the lingo is lush.
Sometimes readers new and not so new to the poem get frustrated by some of the sections, which seem too cryptic to them. The poem is really a bit of linguistic jazz, so listening to it as jazz and not worrying about decoding every "note" comprise one way around the frustration.

My friend, co-writer, and co-editor, the late Wendy Bishop, wrote a superb creative-writing textbook that takes its name from Stevens' poem: Thirteen Ways of Looking For a Poem. It's full of good poetry, great discussions of writing poetry, and superb specific prompts for poems. Published by Longman. And Wendy's own collected book of poems is My Last Door.

And here's hoping the week goes well for you in at least thirteen ways.
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