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Thirteen Ways of Self-Questioning

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The poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is written by Wallace Stevens. It contains thirteen sections; each section provides us a picture that is centered by the element of blackbird. Blackbird in the poem signifies people’s consciousness. So this poem wants to tell us that every person has a perspective to look at the world. It questions our process of thought to understand the world, and reminds us realize the problem of it. In “The Language of Paradox” by Cleanth Brooks, he introduces the notion of paradox and its application in poetry.

In Stevens’ poem we can also find how he uses the device of paradox to raise the question for many times, and also the use of paradox leads us to reconsider our thought. Stevens displays several common understanding in human being. According to Brooks’ viewpoint, “Our prejudices force us to regard paradox as intellectual rather than emotional, clever rather than profound, rational rather than divinely irrational” (Brooks 58). The first section is an introduction of the whole poem: “Among twenty snowy mountains, / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird” (I).

This is to tell us the nature is huge, but with it the only existence that is conscious about it is human consciousness. Twenty snowy mountains stand for the broad natural environment, but they are still and seem lifeless. Then he transferred the focus to the eye of the blackbird which is the only moving thing. Stevens uses “the” instead of “a” when he refers to blackbird because he wants to make it very clear that he refers it particular to human’s consciousness.

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In section twelve, he says “The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying” (XII). This section responds to section one, because he uses the modifiers “moving” and “flying” in two sections respectively to express the same notion that our consciousness is changing over time. Cleanth Brooks describes paradox this way: “Paradox is the language of sophistry, hard bright, witty” (Brooks 58). In Stevens’ poem, in order to make readers realize the problem in the process of our thought.

He narrates: “It was evening all afternoon. / It was snowing / And it was going to snow / The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs” (XIII). Afternoon is before evening, but he says “it was evening all afternoon”. This should signify a passive attitude to life. Evening is the time that near to death in people’s lives, and he tells us even during the afternoon which is their declining period someone already live in the status of evening. It’s a typical instance of paradox in the last section of the poem.

The language seems contradictory and not logical, but actually it is to draw our attention to the awareness of our thought. “It was snowing / And it was going to snow” shows us people’s foresight through their experience and observation of nature. So Stevens put the result before the foresight. After that he refers to the blackbird sat still in the cedar-limbs to indicate that in people’s old age the consciousness is not as active as its youth time. However, the experience we get in the whole life becomes precious possession and provides us the insight.

The last section has a relation with section two: “I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds” (II). The blackbirds in the tree always refer to our minds. So I am a tree, and I have three minds which are represented by three birds. In this section, Stevens probably suggest the three levels of people’s mind according to Freud’s “Id, ego and super-ego” theory. In section four, Stevens says: “A man and a woman / Are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one” (IV). This is another application of paradox.

In “The Language of Paradox”, when Brooks analysis Wordsworth’s poem he says “It is not my intention to exaggerate Wordsworth's own consciousness of the paradox involved” (Brooks 60). Here we really can dig out how the narrator maybe unconsciously applies the paradox. When we say two or more than two distinct existents are one, it obviously sounds not acceptable and will bring a consideration of this idea especially when we partly repeat the narrative but add another subject at the second time. Section four might try to discuss some religious thought in this world.

He suggests every human being, no matter man or woman, is from one source. As objective existence, we and our consciousness are all developed from one. In this poem, Stevens applies paradox through both audible and visible experiences. Brooks suggests: “But I am not here interested in enumerating the possible variations; I am interested rather in our seeing that the paradoxes spring from the very nature of the poet's language: it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations” (Brooks 61).

From a broader vision, we may find the mastery of paradox language by Stevens via analysis of his work. In section five, he narrates: “I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after” (V). When the blackbird is whistling, there is a beauty of inflections along with it, but just after that we will see the beauty of innuendoes. Here the blackbird signifies the poem.

While we are reading or reciting the poem, the pronunciation is similar to inflections of bird because of the rhythms and structure. Nevertheless, after reading it we can realize the innuendoes implied from it. A good poem is not only to let readers enjoy its inflections, but also cause us to rethink in our mind. Moreover, this section has a interesting connection with section eight. Similarly, the narrator refers to accents and rhythms to suggest the composition and recitation of the poem which creates the audible enjoyment for readers.

Then he tells us his thought is also inescapable involved into the poem. Those two sections provide us how Stevens applies paradox with our sensory from hearing. Moreover, he creates the metaphor from visual aspect. Brooks states that “I have said that even the apparently simple and straightforward poet is forced into paradoxes by the nature of his instrument” (Brooks 62). We can see this situation in section eleven where the narrator describes a picture which jumps into our imagination: “He rode over Connecticut / In a glass coach. Once, a fear pierced him, / In that he mistook / The shadow of his equipage / For blackbirds” (XI). The phrase “In a glass coach” tells us he is in a fragile status, and more than that glass is transparent. An illusion of blackbirds reflects his fearful emotion. Section three is another example of usage in this sensory respect. The narrator says “The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime” (III). It begins with the only image of the blackbird that is overwhelmed by autumn winds.

He sketches a close-up of the blackbird, and then tells us it is a small part of the pantomime. This enlarges our vision from close-up to the panorama, and indicates us that the blackbird is just a symbol of our life which is always out of control and encounters uncertainty. Brooks suggests that “there is a sense in which paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry. It is the scientist whose truth requires a language purged of every trace of paradox; apparently the truth which the poet utters can be approached only in terms of paradox” (Brooks 58).

In Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, he actually displays thirteen types of interpretation from which people develop their understanding of consciousness. The application of paradox provides the poem a further explanation of the theme. Through the usage of the symbolic technique and various aspects of sensory, the narrator discusses different levels of social and cultural thought. The most important function of paradox in this poem is to arouse people’s awareness of our consciousness and the ability to question our inherent understanding of our thought.

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Thirteen Ways of Self-Questioning. (2016, Nov 29). Retrieved from

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