Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Study Guide

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a vastly influential Modernist poem by Wallace Stevens. It was first printed in October 1917 in Others: An Anthology of the New Verse, and then in Stevens' groundbreaking first book, Harmonium. The poem is exactly what the title promises, with extreme precision: thirteen short, imagistic sections loosely connected by the common presence of blackbirds. The poem has inspired musical compositions, other literary works, and countless titles following the "Thirteen Ways..." formula.

Each of the thirteen haiku-like stanzas moves in its own unique way, and many would be beautiful poems by themselves. The ubiquitous blackbird takes on as many unique meanings: as a visual spot of black or shadow, as music, and as a thought that can inspire wonder or terror.

The thirteen sections do not come together in a neat or singular statement, but rather present truth as a mosaic, in which the blackbird acquires its various meanings based on how we perceive it. Because Stevens considers it from so many angles, the blackbird becomes a focal point of relationships among humans and nature, a creature to which anything can be compared and through which everything is interconnected. The poem invites its readers to see many meanings in nature, and also challenges the reader in moments when the attempt to find a symbolic meaning fails. Ultimately, the poem is capable of creating an overall mood of tranquility, doom, or any mix of these, depending on the symbolism one reads into each image of the blackbird.