Monday, March 24, 2014

A few notes on Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

It is often used, overused, and misused.  I am likely guilty of all three.  But I find verse five of Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird captures as only a poet can all the complexities of the idea of event and after-memory.  Stevens himself said that “this group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations."[1]  I have found the poem to be one that comes up again and again as I have written about issues related to memory and place.

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

We are asked to choose between two attitudes toward life.  The “beauty of inflections” speaks to action, the movement, a “bending inwards,” from the Latin --  bend in, curve, or, in grammatical terms, a change in the shape of a word.  And innuendo  -- although it is often used it to intimate something disparaging about someone, it here implies the after-image, the echo in time, and memory.   The blackbird whistling – an event we can immediately picture, and hear.  “And just after” – the moment when an event in time starts to be assimilated into our minds, and our memories.  And the instant – and it is instantaneous -- that happens, the moment an event is transformed, sometimes quickly into something else, with layers of meaning attached.

Do we enjoy, or are we moved, by an action, a moment in the present, or do we more cherish the memory of the event?  Where do we land in showing our affection for what poet Peter Strekfus-Green sees as the poles of “perception and interpretation – sign and signification.”

The stanza asks us to choose and at the same moment tells us that choosing is impossible.  “On the level of the metaphors,” writes Beverly Maeder, “there is an impossible choice between poetry itself and its resonance in the mind.”[2]   “I do not know which to prefer” because to choose would be inhuman.  We need both – an ability to hear that whistle, and an ability to remember.  We hope to “notice the color purple in a field,” as Alice Walker wrote, and we hope to appreciate the lingering memory.  The warp and woof of inflections and innuendoes, event and memory, is unending. These must be in balance – or at least we must aim toward balance -- as must the building of the new, and the preservation of the old.    Out of balance and we are headed toward despair.

Note:  Thanks to Peter and Heather Streckfus-Green for sharing some insights on this poem with me.

[1] Kenneth Lincoln, Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.  Quoted at on 3.23.2014.

[2] Beverly Maeder,Wallace Stevens’ Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Beverly Maeder.

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