Reading Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I"


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Some procedural principles of my own:

(a) a reading shouldn't exceed 500 words;
(b) I randomly chose the following passage from Deleuze-Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus to serve as a general 'paratext' for my reading of Stevens's opening verse:

"But to break the becoming-animal all that is needed is to extract a segment from it, to abstract one of its moments, to fail to take into account its internal speeds and slownesses, to arrest the circulation of affects. (p. 260 from Chapter 10. 1730: "Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible...");

(c) I don't like to talk about linguistic units but rather about more interesting lines of flight or deterritorialization;
(d) I view the poem (and its first verse) as a map "with multiple entryways and exits";
(e) I regard the critic's language as always "acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying"; and
(f)  I offer my first reading of Stevens's "Thirteen Ways: I" as a general description only.


Twenty mountains and thirteen ways. Snowy habitat and a solitary blackbird distinguishable not by wing, tail but eye only. The poet's first verse is a bird's moving eye. The significant question is whether the poem's a "program" for transformative viewing or a lyricist's plain and simple address.

To me it's clear. We don't ever dare to take from the bird's true motion a single identifiable (read codifiable) moment and treat it as Stevens's true poem (haecceity): we continue the rêve, transported by the object's physicality and potential to move freely over the white plane of true flight. It's potential to mix flight and feeling at the same time is something which will be eventually regarded as its primary "becoming-animal" experience.

Snowy mountains don't form a backdrop for flying blackbirds as much as simple speeds do, & rates of descent and slow-moving flight formations across the sky. An interiorized type of flight, in particular, that can't be expressed initially as anything but a synecdoche. But more than that. Landscapes over which the eye of flight roams can't (as in aerial photography) really be plotted as points, depressions or peaks for a bird's eye in flight is a total of "speeds and affects". Stevens's first way is then an assemblage and not a set of decipherable coordinates.

Furthermore, it's a question of eye for eye: the slowing, transformative power of bird-vision in place of an authoritative (which in the case of humans may even become voyeuristic) viewing that's always centered, always full of meanings. Eye does not co-opt eye. Slowing with the blackbird in mid-flight over snowy valleys is not a type of arrested activity, tracked on the viewer's sensory radar And since this type of moving has been interiorized, the only way to distinguish the "moving thing" from its environment is to see the bird's body as a smooth planar surface over which the viewer and viewed pass as flights towards a new deterritorialized 'site' .

Stevens's bodiless eye is permissible only because of a truer body of which it is part. The moving eye can be said to belong to a much more general Body, organless, smooth and always tied to flows, a site for traces of flights rather than a knowledge grid. Lines in Stevens's opening verse are striations ("schizzes"). The flying eye is where one among many entryways into (and exits out of) the essentially heterogeneous Body of flight can be envisaged: with space always for one more ( n+1) Viewing the blackbird's flying eye is a becoming-animal, a radically liberatory sense of engaged reading.

What does "the eye of the blackbird" signify? Nothing that frees us this easily from the rooted strictures of 'text' need fear stoppage of bird flight (poem's primary flow) or the threat of lexical units supplanting  flights and entryways altogether. Or even twenty mountains and thirteen ways.


Joseph Hutchison said...

Conrad, I'm not going to critique your critique except to ask a couple of questions:

1) Why do you feel the need for a "paratext" in order to read these three lines?
2) By "linguistic units" do you mean the words, phrases, and finished sentence that constitute the poem? And if so, are you seriously claiming that criticism can happen without taking these things into account?

Now let me just offer my own brief reading.

First of all, any real mountain plays host to all manner of moving creatures, which means that Stevens has set before us an iconic landscape, not a realistic one. It is an image of stasis; the word "snowy" implies whiteness: hence a white stasis.

Within this stasis Stevens places one moving thing, which belongs to a creature whose color is the opposite of the landscape; but the creature itself isn't moving either: only its eye moves.

If the holistic image in these three lines is iconic, what does it symbolize? It wouldn't be safe to push too far here, since this poem is only one of thirteen "ways" of viewing a blackbird. But I think it's clear that Stevens has set before us an image of emotional frigidity, which is relieved only by the blackbird's act of seeing. A real blackbird among snowy mountains would be looking for food and/or shelter, but Stevens's iconic blackbird is different: as presented in the poem, it does nothing but look—for what, we don't know.

Of course, the blackbird's looking is the mirror image of the poet's looking, and the reader's. Which leads me to wonder about Stevens's rhetorical stance. I know that as a reader I don't feel implicated by the poem's image, and Stevens doesn't insist (in these lines, at least) that the stasis is common to everyone. So I have to read it as Stevens's own stasis, his own frigidity, which is relieved by his own looking (the mirror image of the blackbird's).

Having said all this, I think there may be a further clue in Stevens's use of the word "way" in the title. When applied to the white mountain/blackbird's eye, we might be forgiven for finding an allusion to the yin/yang symbol of Taoism: the white (yin) portion of the symbol with its black(bird) dot. I imagine someone has followed this line of interpretation, but I haven't taken it very far in my own mind.

The only truly puzzling thing about the poem is the number "twenty." Because of its specificity it feels allusive, but to what it alludes (if anything) I don't know. One possibility, though, following the Taoism thread, might be the I Ching (Book of Changes), where we find that the twentieth hexagram is Kuan, "Contemplation" and/or "View." My Wilhelm/Baynes translation begins with this statement: "A slight variation of tonal stress gives the Chinese name for this hexagram a double meaning. It means both contemplating and being seen…." Certainly this is what Stevens does in his poem, and what he inspires the reader to do. Well…why not?

I do realize that in resorting to the I Ching and Taoist philosophy I have invoked my own "paratexts." The difference between my practice and yours lies in the fact that my associations arise from the words on the page, which you specifically say you're not interested in, while yours arise from a theoretical overlay to which you want to make the poem conform. Even so, I would never suggest that this part of my reading is reliable or authoritative or even valuable to anyone but me. Unless some scholar can show the Stevens was aware of Taoism and the I Ching when he wrote this poem--or that he'd seen some Chinese painting with twenty mountains in it--I don't think my paratextual speculations deserve to be called true criticism, and I doubt that any commentary can be true criticism if it depends on paratexts.

Irina said...

Quite interesting.

Another possible note would be that the blackbird (or the archetype thereof) in Wallace Stephen’s poem is a singing bird. It whistles, so the visual paradigm acquires an echo that adds to its dimension:

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

.The « just after » evolves into a diffused and shifting, globular state of mind:

« The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause. »

So perhaps the movement, the fleeting shards of images and the muffled, unsung songs all converge into what the poet would call « a small part of the pantomime ».

Conrad DiDiodato said...


your reading of Stevens is very sympathetic, very insightful. But,again, I think we are two very temperamentally different 'readers' (and thank god for that!).I expect any two critic's positions on a text to differ in pretty substantial ways.

To begin with, a critique of Stevens's lovely verse in terms of its possible affiliation with an "I Ching" text makes it (in Deleuzian parlance & mine) "dichotomous, pivotal", meaning it doesn't engage a book of divination with a view to connecting any one point (hexagram and interpretation) to any other (the first of Stevens's thirteen ways) as a line of flight. "I Ching" stands to Stevens's poem as canonical, hierarchizing and subordinating meanings. It's counterintuitive to suggest a sort of genealogy ("if Stevens was aware of 'I Ching' or Taoism", then it follows that this reading is primary)because it makes it very unlikely—and this is what I'm primarily after—that both the text and reader will undergo a "metamorphosis", envisaging a newer rearrangement of the "machinic assemblage" that the text is.

I guess we also have different notions of "paratext" as well, yours a more severe, restrictive "gloss" on Stevens's "blackbird" (with Kuan hexagram for 'twenty'acting as key signifier) while I'm prepared to suggest ways in which the act of reading can shift the very ground under us, literally "reterritorialize" both text and world and relocate an initial view on one of a "thousand plateaus" of critical engagement.

By linguistic units I mean either the smallest or very largest units of linguistic meanings, however the critic reassembles them for textual analysis (phonemes, graphemes,et al)and any outmoded 'realist' notions of language-reality correspondences these sorts of literary "binary structure" subserve.That's the poststructuralist in me speaking, of course. It's for this reason alone that I can't entertain only one view of "moving eye" as "a stasis common to everyone" (a view too solidly tied to "points and positions"), at least not without the possibility of later seeing "stasis" get reassembled in a radically new way that's still consonant with Stevens's overall design.


you're right to suggest that metamorphosis of singing into an indecipherable cause: a very Deleuzian shift.

Henry Gould said...

Wonderful comments here! Just off the top of my head I would stress Stevens' pronounced philosophical interest in problems of consciousness & reality, & the relation of same to "poetic numbers" (ie. poetry) - the mind's "measure" of what it encounters...

Thus, just as 13 is one more than 12, the traditional number of totality or wholeness, consciousness is the "extra" added to physical reality - and one blackbird's eye is 1 more than 20 (mountains) - which adds up to the number of syllables in this stanza...

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Conrad DiDiodato said...


thanks for the Chapman reading of Stevens's. I saw some interesting references to Freud and Taoism.

JforJames said...


Above is Edward Picot's visual treatment of the poem.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Wow! Thanks for that, James.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Although I find many references to Taoism in the various reviews and commentary I see about Wallace Stevens's poetry, I can find no evidence that he had any interest in, or (excepting a possible class or two at Harvard) even knowledge of Taoism or the Tao Te Ching at all.

Can one of you scholars out there shed some light on this?

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Twenty-six days and counting.

Reckon not.