I hate BuzzFeed with a passion. Most of the time, at least. Sure, making lists is amusing and usually helpful, and the whole identification thing is nice from time to time. But it’s all fun and games until your computer is on its last legs, begging you to stop the torture that is waiting for N gifs to load simultaneously – N, of course, being any number greater than 1. And do we really need to read another yea-long edition of “X Reasons You Know You Were Born in the Multiple-of-Tenties?”
The good news about this post? It has nothing to do with BuzzFeed. But it does have a lot to do with Wallace Stevens, black birds, paper bags – more on that in a minute – and poetic structure, so why not?
Call it what you will – an exemplar of Symbolist poetry, an Imagist creation set in verse, a testament to modern abstraction – but Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a delightful poem. It alternates between making perfect sense grammatically and being slightly bizarre semantically, which I suppose any good poem can and should do, yet it’s also a poem that lives up to its name: thirteen reflections on a blackbird, no more, no less. Critics have rightfully compared it to Japanese haiku in both form and imagery thanks to its clipped lines and evocation of nature as deeply symbolic. The first stanza is a near-textbook example:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Yet Stevens stretches out the form and plays with all kinds of linguistic symmetry: echoes, parallelisms, and slight rhymes call out with every sight of his blackbird. Stanza five is a good one:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
I love the symmetry of the preferences: Stevens’ speaker is caught between “inflections” and the blackbird’s “whistling” (a well-defined analogy since both are acts of sound), and “innuendoes” and the moment “just after” – that silent space where secret meaning gets attached to the preceding speech act, or in other words, the very definition of meaning in relation to speech. It is language in a nutshell, framed as the time and space a blackbird occupies when it whistles into the air. It’s beautiful, and I would even stretch that symbolism to stanza eight, which is the speaker’s admission of his poetic ability:
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms.
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
The blackbird’s complicity in the speaker’s knowledge is not just a metaphor for poetic inspiration, but also for the link between the speech act and semantic meaning – or in a word, communication.
If Stevens’ meditations on a blackbird are peaceful meditations on what it is to observe and to write, then Raymond Patterson’s “Twenty-Six Ways of Looking at a Blackman” is its cutting literary heir and counterpart. Published in 1969, Patterson’s poem echoes Stevens’ in form but turns that echo into a dark, humorous examination of the “blackman’s” spirit. The first stanza – a mere two lines – is about as succinct a summary as any other:
On the road we met a blackman,
But no one else.
Patterson is also clever in playing with color and shape to counterpoint his predecessor’s poetic imagery: whereas “Blackbird” reads in snow, cedar limbs and golden birds, “Blackman” features paper bags, black flowers and brown fields. This contrast drives at the heart of ‘blackness’ for both poets as well – Stevens is content to see the blackbird as a symbol for his poetic and linguistic inspiration, but Patterson associates the blackman with absence, nothingness, and the intangible. Here’s stanza three:
From brown paper bags
A blackman fills the vacancies of morning
With orange speculations.
Stanzas five and six draw out the blackman as a pure abstraction:
Devouring earthly possessions
Is one of a blackman’s excesses.
Exaggerating their transiency
Even this shadow has weight.
A cool heaviness.
Call it a blackman’s ghost.
And stanza 25 juxtaposes the fantastic and the surreal with the mundane:
As I remember it,
The only unicorn in the park
Belonged to a blackman
Who went about collecting bits
And torn scraps of afternoons.
It’s possible to read Patterson’s lines as a dark satire on the emptiness of what poets Michael Harper and Anthony Walton have termed “the interior lives of blacks,” particularly as the “blackman” dances in and out of a reality that never quite matches the one we imagine ourselves in (What’s an “orange speculation, anyway?”). But I think this deliberate fantasy – for lack of a better word – also exposes the eccentric limits of pure symbolism, of taking something concrete and stuffing it with layers and layers of abstractions. The end result becomes something like stanzas 3 and 25 above, taking on a near-mythical quality in some cases. So maybe indirectly, “Blackman” is as much a declaration of the transient and malleable black spirit as it is a warning against ascribing so much to something so intangible and unseen. Perhaps having the “blackbird” involved in what he knows makes his “blackman” all the more incongruent with the world his creation lives in.
Or perhaps we should take the blackman’s final advice:
At the center of Being
Said the blackman,
All is tangential.
Even this laughter, even your tears.
(Not to ruin a perfect thing – but I would add something else to that last line: “even Buzzfeed.”)