I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know,too,
That the blackbird is involvedIn what I know.
— Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
It always amazes me that I keep coming back to this poem, and these birds. The first thing I ever drew were red-winged blackbirds and yellow birds; my grandmother had canaries. This poem was the one I read as a 14 year old and didn’t quite understand and, at the age of 50, I still don’t all the way have a definition for it completely. I come back to it and, in turn, it keeps asking of me. This poem is the great lesson to me that really great art keeps beginning.
A lot of academics have spilled a lot of ink writing that “13 Ways” is Stevens’ meditation on suicide; whether to go on or not ; and I only sometimes half believe this. I also believe it is about learning to see. . .learning to see all things–or whole things–I’m never quite sure. I just know that I find great comfort in this poem when life is at its shakiest and most tenuous.
Blackbirds are loaded with definitions from almost every culture. They are one of the most successful species on earth, being found virtually everywhere in the world. They are our constant companions and represent much symbolism from culture to culture. One of my favorite blackbird tales is that of Saint Benedict, of whom the backbirds song entreated thoughts of erotic nature. Instead of finding a local trollop and getting his freak on, he removed his clothing and hurled himself into a thorn bush. One cannot help but think a little slap and tickle may have done this chap a world of good. A blackbird nesting near one’s home is seen as a harbinger of good fortune. While many cultures believe backbirds are a bad omen, the sight of two sitting together is said to be a sign of harmony. When you read through the volumes of blackbird folklore, many contradictory stories emerge. My favorite blackbirds are yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, both common to Illinois and in Chicago; the hedge in Lincoln Park is lousy with them. I always think of them as a symbol of being home.