March 29 Wallace Stevens: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Going over some older material in the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., Kennedy) and in the “Words” chapter I ran across the lesson about the importance of allusion (not illusion). It reminds me of the concept of intertextuality, something that was being discussed in Post-Modern circles when I was in school. To be quite honest, I couldn’t tell the difference between the two. Intertextuality is the bringing in of references from other sources – weaving them into your poem or your story inter-textually – to bring the piece a deeper meaning and a feeling of connection with the greater world of literature. But allusion is when your poem or story refers, indirectly, to another narrative or piece of narrative from another source usually Classical (i.e. Beowulf, the Bible) to connect the meaning of the current text to the piece being alluded to. Can you tell the difference between the two? Neither can I.

It’s why I never took to Post-modernism.

[This next paragraph is my diatribe against Post-modernism. Read it if you want to, if it tickles your fancy to make fun of Post-modernism, or skip it and go on to get back to the discussion of allusions. But I’m leaving it in.]

I found it completely derivative (yet never gave any one else credit for its clever “inventions” – “we created intertextuality”, no, you didn’t) and unapproachable to those outside of that community. It totally opposed my view of art which is to represent the community that it narrates for, note the word “for”. In other words, part of it’s duties as representative is to inter-act with that community, be a sounding board for it, communicate WITH it. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of art snobs looking down on the community they display in their work and getting off on how very clever they are at doing it. Pop Culture seems to do a better job of inter-acting with the culture they represent, rather than the “real” artists who don’t want to touch it with their kid gloves. With any luck, it has died a natural death from lack of enthusiasm (both from the bloodless bodies who run it and the greater culture that they refuse access to it).

So, I hate Post-Modernism. Can you tell?

Onto allusion. It’s been used by many poets for centuries. T.S. Eliot is one of the most famous of them, because some his poems like the Wasteland, were practically ALL allusion. He ends the very long poem with a Hindu prayer. The most vivid allusion that comes to mind is a verse from “the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. It has a repetitive stanza, “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” which is a direct reference to the painter. But it also has an indirect version where you have to read the subtext of the poem in order to see the allusion. “..I am not Price Hamlet, nor was meant to be”. This is reference to Hamlet’s soliloquy where he’s in a state of indecision; he’s trying to decide whether he’s going to kill himself, “To be or not to be/That is the question.” But J. Alfred has already answered that question “nor was meant to be.” He chose “not”. In the rest of the stanza, if you know the play, he refers to himself as Polonius, the brown-nosing adviser to the King who advises his son to “neither borrower nor lender be.” (In other words, don’t take a stand.) “Am an attendant lord, one that will do/To swell progress…Advise the prince…Deferential, glad to be of use,/Politic, cautious, and meticulous;/Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse.” If you read the play (or rent it on DVD), you’ll see that’s a perfect description of Polonious. He doesn’t even need to mention the guy’s name.

And Hamlet as well, has its allusions. The players that come to visit the King re-enact an ancient Greek tragedy about a brother who kills his brother in order to claims his throne. If it sounds familiar (like what happened at the beginning of Hamlet), that’s because this is the play that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. Shakespeare borrowed its plot and used it to create the play that you’re now reading (or watching on DVD). It’s kind of a mind-bending allusion.

There are also references to ancient Greek mythology in Hamlet which makes sense since the Elizabethan playwrights were trying to write modern versions of Greek Tragedies. All of them have allusions at one point or another to the Classical world. In Act I, Scene 2 Hamlet has his own “Prufrock” moment where he complains of his “father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules.” The allusion sets up not only the comparison – his uncle is about as much his father as he is Hercules – but also shows his loathing for himself for his inaction against his uncle. He’s not Hercules, the strongest man in the world, he’s the opposite, a very weak man.

Earlier in the verse, he’s cursing his mother, “Frailty, thy name is woman! -/With which she followed my poor father’s body,/Like Niobe, all tears, – why she, even she -/O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,/Would have mourn’d longer.” Niobe from Greek myth was a woman known for being haughty because she was the daughter of a demi-god, but also for weeping when her haughtiness got her trouble. She’s actually known for the great amount of weeping and mourning that she did and still does today. I didn’t understand this allusion until I read her story. She bragged to the gods (never a good idea) that her children were superior to the gods’ children, so they killed them and then her husband killed himself. She ran to a mountain top, turned herself into a stone and wept for the rest of eternity (the stone is still there, looks like a woman’s head and whenever it rains, appears to be weeping). But she does not mourn her husband, only her children, so that’s probably what Hamlet is referring to.

So, intertextuality, I mean allusion, has been around for a long time. (I could probably go into medieval texts and pull out biblical and Roman references – and there are a LOT – but you get the idea). The poem “Helen” looks at women’s rights, or lack there of, from the point of view of Helen of Troy. “The Tyger” by William Blake is a poem about the devil. My friend asked me how I knew that it was about the devil and I referred to the stanza that says “did he who made the Lamb make thee?” as a reference to the opposite of the devil, an allusion to the Lamb of God. My favorite allusion is in Yeats’s “The Second Coming” the title itself an allusion to biblical events. “What rough beast…Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” An allusion to the birth of Christ also born in Bethlehem during the First Coming. I just like it because it’s scary (certainly the most quoted poem of horror films).

All of this is just to say that allusion is a useful tool. It layers a work with different levels of meaning, but it also makes a work feel connected to the greater body of work just as we all are connected to the history of those that came before us.

What’s this got to do with the poem that’s posted? Well, mostly, I just liked it and wanted to post it, but this is not to say that it has no allusions in it. Stevens tries to make his blackbird seem mythical, by putting in a reference or two to the classical. The men of Haddam, sounds like a biblical town. Unfortunately, it’s not, it’s a town in Connecticut, but the way he says it sounds biblical (“O thin men of Haddam”). But then he speaks of golden owls which is a reference to Greek mythology (go ahead and google “owls” and “Greek mythology”, you’ll find the link). In part four, the poem says, “A man and a woman/Are one.” This sounds eerily similar to the biblical reference to marriage “and her flesh shall be joined with your flesh and they shall be one.” But in the middle of all this is the blackbird who seems in some frightening manner to blend itself into each of these scenes. We know that he has a power that frightens and yet cannot explain it when the poet writes, “Even the bawds of euphony/would cry out sharply.” (This damn bird scares even the scary people.)

So, look it over, perhaps you’ll find your own allusion hidden somewhere in there.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
by Wallace Stevens

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 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 flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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