Friday, April 25, 2008

The Logic of Beauty: A National Poetry Month Post

Poetry is a method of thinking, unlike any other. After reading a poem, we are asked: How does it make you feel? A legitimate, but not the only, question. There is also: How does it make you think? A great poet persuades you, as deftly as a courtroom lawyer, of her argument.

The poem that convinced me of the logic of beauty was Wallace Stevens' iconic Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Recently, I stumbled across a stunning visual twist on the original poem. (Be sure to read the creator's notes, because he explains why he modified the last line slightly, plus other interesting tidbits.)

Several years ago, I also wrote an essay about the poem for a (failed) attempt to enter an MFA program. It's posted below.

Look at the images, wade through my essay (if you don't mind a bit of poetic analysis---Billy Collins, look away!) and of course, absorb the poem itself. Which convinces you most?

My money (all of it) is on the poem.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird


Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendos,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?


I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.


The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

only if you would like more, here's a mini-essay I wrote about this poem. I'm no Kelly Fineman, but this is how I would analyze Stevens' argument:

The Logic of Beauty
“I do not know which to prefer/the beauty of inflections/or the beauty of innuendos,/the blackbird whistling/or just after.”

Likewise, I do not know which to prefer, the spare arguments of Stevens’ words, or the emotional reverberations of the empty spaces just after. The moving thing or the still? The beating black feathers or the enveloping white snow? The refraction of light by glass or the absorption of it in shadow? The poem as a whole or the poems within it?

Such are the questions posed by the logic of beauty, which leads us to an “indecipherable cause,” rather than a singular conclusion. In this realm, there's no positing of A, inferring of B, or proving of C. There's never a single blackbird, only thirteen ways of looking at it.

Thirteen, a prime number, can't be reduced to anything other than the one poem and the thirteen stanzas that compose it. Beauty, by this logic, cannot be divided, and so it reminds us of our own “involvement” in the “lucid, inescapable rhythms” of life.

The logic of beauty can clearly be seen in Stevens’ twelfth stanza:

“The river is moving./The blackbird must be flying.”
Two simple sentences, as clear as if Stevens had written “Theory A is true. Therefore, Theory B must also be true.” And yet, of course, a blackbird flying has nothing whatsoever to do with the movement of a river. Unless one argues with the logic of beauty.

By its rules, the river is indivisible from the blackbird. The movement of one draws up from the imagination the thought of the other. In the silence “just after” the stanza, the reader pictures the blackbird flying steadily, pulling---by the beat of his wings---the river into rhythmic motion, and she is convinced beyond doubt of the soundness of this argument.

The dark feathers and the glittering water, the bright sky and the muddy earth, the freedom of flight and the channeled path of water flow, every evidence points to the separateness of bird and water, and yet we believe in their connection. Stevens has used our own rational patterns of reasoning against us, and we find ourselves, not single-minded, but of “three minds:” considering not just the separate beauties of the river and the blackbird, but the unique, third beauty of what is created between them.

Over and over in his poem, in a series of crisp stanzas laid out like a set of new commandments, Stevens reminds us with such logic that we, even as we whirl in confused isolation, are part of an overreaching “pantomime.” He states it clearly in the fourth stanza:
“A man and a woman/are one./A man and a woman and a blackbird/are one.”
He implies it in the ninth:
“When the blackbird flew out of sight,/it marked the edge/of one of many circles.”

Even his choice of Haddam as the setting for his seventh stanza can be seen as more than just an elite town in Connecticut, for this Aramaic word means “piece, limb, member of the body.”

By the time the reader reaches the end of the thirteenth stanza, with the snow falling–a snow composed of unique crystals that nevertheless renders the landscape a swath of indivisible whiteness–she has begun to think in the logic of beauty herself.

There is no longer a barrier between her and the blackbird in the cedar-limbs. All around her is a lucid green light, and glass coaches with fearsome shadows travel the land. The bawds of euphony cry out to her, and everywhere, is it evening, all afternoon.

And she does not know which to prefer: herself, the poem, or what moves between them.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Tricia, at The Miss Rumphius Effect.


  1. I love your thoughts on the "logic of beauty." Reading poetry, I get hijacked way too often by the analytical impulse, which seems to take me away from the poetry and the beauty.

    (I just discovered another Billy Collins anti-analysis poem this week: "Workshop." It's at, I think.)

  2. Hah! "I'm no Kelly Fineman." That should SERIOUSLY be a phrase.

    But -- you're channeling our girl pretty hard, even if you're *not* her. Wow.

  3. Oh, I'm swooning, Sara.
    I could sleep with this poem under my pillow, honestly.
    I've changed my mind over the years about which stanza is my favorite -- maybe IV, maybe V, maybe XIII -- but the overall effect is beauty, no analysis necessary. ('Tho yours is so lovely and poetical...)

  4. I do not know which to prefer, either: I love the poem, I love the visual interpretation, and I love your analysis too. I'll just take all three, thanks.

  5. I've always loved this poem, but now I love it even more. Love the visual representation and your thoughts and analysis. All beautiful!

  6. Lovely analysis, Sara. I think I prefer the blackbird-shaped holes after each of the segments. The blackbirds are so concrete as described, but for me it's the emotional resonance of the blackbirds that truly carries this poem to greatness.

  7. "When the blackbird flew out of sight,
    It marked the edge
    Of one of many circles."

    The first time I read this poem years ago the ninth stanza knocked me on my butt. I've never recovered.

    Your analysis is great. You've brought out just what I love about poetry that I've never been able to say.

  8. I like Billy Collins, really I do, but I think analysis--such as yours here--is under-rated. Good stuff. Why not talk about all the many interpretations offered up to us by the poet? The only bad kind of analysis is the kind that says: There's just one and only one way to see this poem.

  9. Billy Collins is like the pal you love and go out with for coffee ... the friend with whom you never have a conflict, because you always know exactly what he means. And he gets you, too, and you love him for that. And then you order more coffee and sigh and think, "If only everything could be this easy."

    Wallace Stevens is like your inscrutable uncle, who isn't always kind, and sometimes doesn't seem to want you around, but who's so complex and interesting that you keep having him over. And when you pin him down on something, and whisper to your mother, who's sitting next to you, that now you know why he's like this, he smiles cryptically, and looks away.

    Your coffee friend would, of course, be insulted at being analyzed, but your uncle practically begs for it. :-)


R-E-S-P-E-C-T (or you will be deleted)

You can receive followup comments to this conversation by checking the "notify me" box below the comment window.