4 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

If you’re reading this, chances are you know how much I love, and champion, poetry. You may also be aware of my quip that about a century ago, academics stole poetry from regular people, and ever since, some of us have been trying to steal it back.

Which is to say, as clever as academic poetry may sometimes be, it too often lacks any real heart or conviction. And too often, it seems, it chooses to be obscure for the same reason academics use unnecessarily obfuscatory terms in prose—to avoid appearing “common.”

For some time, then, I’ve cast disparaging glances at what seemed an unnecessarily difficult poem: Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Still, something about the poem continued calling to me, like a blackbird cawing to draw my attention but I just couldn’t understand what it wanted.

Which brings me to the “Four Ways” part of this post’s title. Not long ago, in my ongoing quest to understand what the heck happened to poetry during the 20th century, I came across a copy of William Roetzheim‘s The Giant Book of Poetry, a collection spanning from 4,000 BC to AD 1984.

For me, the preface alone was worth the price, simply to read his “Level Four Poetry Manifesto.” Roetzheim believes the best poetry …

  1. “should communicate clearly to the reader on the denotative level”;
  2. “should communicate subtly to the reader at the connotative level, creating a desired mood”;
  3. “may offer a separate, ‘hidden’ message to the reader through the use of metaphor or similar techniques”;
  4. “uses a symbol to offer a separate. ‘hidden’ message to the reader.”

Put more simply, the best (1) is about something on the surface, (2) communicates mood through poetic language, (3) suggests a deeper metaphoric meaning, and (4) inspires readers to muse beyond that metaphor.

To demonstrate, Roetzheim measures Robert Frost‘s “The Road Not Taken” as an example. (1) On a basic level, the poem is a story about reaching a fork in a path through the woods. We all know what that looks like. (2) Next, it conveys a somewhat somber, wistful mood in its language and structure. (3) Of course we also recognize that the path and fork are metaphors for our choices in life. (4) Yet something lies even above this, in that our minds are invited to travel briefly that other path toward “what if?” and “who am I?”

For what it’s worth, Roetzheim suggests that academic poems often skip levels 1 and 2, at their own hazard, resulting in work that cannot stand the test of time.

Enthused by his “manifesto,” I decided to re-tackle “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I read the poem again, looking first just for denotative imagery, then for poetic language and mood, then for a metaphor, and finally for a possible transcendence. The results were eye opening! A poem that had once seemed impossible to grasp opened up like a cactus flower.

Rather than impose my own thoughts on you, I encourage you to use the same process with the poem—or any poem—and see what you think.

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