图片 1剑桥大学国王学院

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图片 3国王学院康河边的石碑

Bicester Village 比斯特购物村

Of Modern Poetry

At the Backs of King’s College there is a memorial stone in white marble commemorating an alumnus of the College, renowned Chinese poet Xu Zhimo. Moving to the UK in 1921, Zhimo spent a year studying at King’s, where he fell in love not only with the romantic poetry of English poets like John Keats, but also with Cambridge itself.

According to a 2017 VisitBritain report, more than 260,000 Chinese tourists visit the UK each year. And where do they go? It claimed that “they are mostly interested in symbolic elements: the Royal Family, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Downton Abbey”. So expect crowds at Windsor Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, Baker Street, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Highclere Castle.




One of the most frequently anthologized of Stevens’s poems, “Of Modern Poetry” is another work that attempts to define art for a fragmented world in constant flux. Poetry is now a search, whereas it used to be a method. In the past, “the scene was set; it repeated what/ Was in the script.” That is, convention and tradition defined poetry, and each poem was a modification of a pattern. Now, Stevens says, the conventions no longer apply.

His poem, 再别康桥 (variously translated as Second Farewell to Cambridge), is arguably his most famous poem, and is now a compulsory text on Chinese literature syllabuses, learnt by millions of school children across the country every year. The poem paints an idyllic portrait of King’s and the River Cam, and serves as a reminder of Xu Zhimo's fondness for his time in Cambridge.?

Then there’s the shopping. Spending figures for Chinese tourists are truly staggering. According to the UNWTO, Chinese tourists overseas spent $261.1 billion in 2016, up from around $10 billion in the year

The poem must reflect the world, speak its speech; it must “face the men of the time and . . . meet/ The women of the time.” War, the contemporary state of affairs, must have a part in it. Most important, it must find “what will suffice,” a phrase repeated twice in the poem. The search for “what will suffice” amounts to a search for satisfaction, a solace for the mind’s pain of isolation. It must, in fact, express the mind to itself, so that it becomes the internal made visible. The actor must speak words that “in the delicatest ear of the mind” repeat what it desires to hear.


  1. Collectively, America’s globetrotters parted with a relatively paltry $123.6 billion.

The imagery so far has been of the theater, but when the method of this new poetry is described, philosophy and music are interwoven with theater images to give the impression of an art that is plastic and fluid. The actor becomes “a metaphysician in the dark,” suggesting a thinker concerned with first and final causes but lacking the light of any received structure for his meditations. He is, moreover, “twanging an instrument,” creating a music that is “sounds passing through sudden rightnesses.” These vibrations are the mind’s own pulsations made audible to it.

While the poem has been set to music many times before, King’s has commissioned the first musical setting of the text by a mainstream classical composer. The new piece, by renowned English composer John Rutter, has been written and recorded in celebration of the near 100-year link between King’s College and Xu Zhimo, and has been released on 26 January 2018 on a new album on the King's College Record Label.


The poem concludes by returning to the subject matter of modern poetry, which can be any action in which the self is expressed: It “may/ Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman/ Combing.” The subject is not the important issue, however, for the real poem is the act of creating poetry; modern poetry is finally “The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.” This poem twists and turns in an attempt to catch a glimpse of its own creation. It is about itself: Modern poetry, and this work defining it, are self-reflexive. The poem is the creation of poetry and not the product.

虽然这首诗已多次被配乐演绎,但国王学院委托了主流古典作曲家根据诗的文字进行创作。新作品由著名的英国作曲家约翰·卢特(John Rutter)担纲,以铭记国王学院和徐志摩之间近100年的不解之缘,并已由国王学院的唱片公司于2018年1月26日发布。

"Cynical young Chinese will scornfully tell you that the travelling middle classes pay lip service to appreciating culture, but they are mainly after the goods: specifically, European brands they can buy in situ, and bring home to lord over their non-travelling neighbours,” says Telegraph Travel’s Sally Peck, a former Beijing resident. “This may go some way to explaining the extraordinary spending figures.”

This poem contains germs of the ideas that Stevens would develop and elaborate in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” in which he claims that poetry must be abstract, must change, and must give pleasure.

“Many intellectual transformations happened for him while he was here and in some ways the whole seed of his development as a person who became an intellectual poet, through the medium of poetry, all sort of connected up with his visit to Cambridge and the people we met.”



图片 4剑桥大学国王学院官网上关于《再别康桥》专辑的介绍

All of which reveals why Bicester Village, a vast retail estate on the outskirts of the Oxfordshire town, is the second most visited UK attraction for Chinese tourists – after Buckingham Palace. Three in four Chinese visitors head to Bicester aided by Mandarin signs and announcements at London Marylebone; others travel by tour bus.

“Of Modern Poetry” is one of Stevens’s most frequently anthologized poems, and it may be the most commonly encountered poem from the collection that contains it, Parts of a World. Its popularity may be attributable in part to the relative clarity with which it presents its themes. The quest for “what will suffice” appears in other Stevens poems as well, including “Man and Bottle.” The search for a fiction that will be sustaining or nourishing to human beings in their uncertain lives is Stevens’s major theme. In this poem, the theme is not hidden or presented indirectly.

“国王学院极大程度帮助徐志摩拓展了学识,并种下了日后成为一名才华横溢的诗人的种子,”国王学院副院长史蒂文·切力(Steve Cherry)表示,“通过对这首诗的音乐创作,我们把学院的美丽点滴和徐志摩本人在这里的美好体验结合起来,重新带给因他而寻访的中国人民。”


The poem explores what characteristics poetry must have if it is to “suffice”—that is, to be enough or to satisfy. It is the uncertainty of the time that places so many demands on poetry, because poetry, to satisfy, must not violate reality. Therefore, wartime demands poetry which confronts war issues rather than hides from them. As each age speaks its own language, so the speech of the poem must reflect and partake of the discourse of the time. Otherwise it will not satisfy. It is axiomatic in Stevens that building a romantic world which can serve as a shelter from the unpleasantness of reality is not the function of poetry. Some of Stevens’s early critics thought of him as an escapist, an ivory-tower poet who had little contact with the real world and little interest in it. He fought such dismissal vigorously in both poetry and essay, claiming that the poet must confront reality. The work of the imagination lies in its interactions with the real, not in disguises or evasions of reality.

整首曲目以男高音中文独唱(soli tenor voice choir)为主,配以长笛独奏(soli flute)。


The presentation of what modern poetry is actually like or should be like is more complex, presented as it is in a series of metaphors of actors, musicians, and metaphysicians. The substance of poetry is its sounds; these sounds ideally have all the dimensions that they could be given by those other art forms and disciplines.

“John Rutter is a very resourceful composer, and I was delighted with the way he conceived of doing this, presenting most of the text through the tenor voice for which we engage the Chinese tenor. Well, I wanted to have a go myself at making an arrangement of it which would express something of what we do at King’s.”

King’s College, Cambridge 剑桥大学国王学院

Still more subtle is the description of the response to this ideal poetry. The audience is really listening “not to the play, but to itself.” If the reality of the present is adequately represented in sound, the reader will find himself or herself in the poem. There will be an identification, described in the poem in terms of music that is somehow metaphysical: “The actor is/ A metaphysician in the dark, twanging/ An instrument.” Poetry is thus presented as a metaphysical music that helps the mind define itself and learn of its own limits and possibilities. The identity of mind and music is a positive pleasure, consisting of “Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly/ Containing the mind.”

“很荣幸能够邀请到约翰·卢特(John Rutter)来为我们作曲。他是个经验丰富的作曲家,这次也通过与一名中国男高音歌唱家的合作充分体现了我们想表达的主题。其实我一直希望能够做出一首表达出国王学院气质的作品”,负责这首《再别康桥》曲目的编曲家,同时也担任国王学院合唱团总指挥的史蒂芬·克劳伯里(Stephen Cleobury)说。

A famous tree - for Chinese people at least - can be found in King’s College, Cambridge. The willow, ignored by most, is mentioned in a much-loved poem by Xu Zhimo, ‘Taking Leave of Cambridge Again’:

The conclusion of the poem retreats from the intensity of the middle section as it presents some of the materials of poetry. The subject matter of poetry is far less significant than the creative act itself, suggests the poem, and only as an afterthought should poetic subjects even be mentioned. Nevertheless, the images of the three people, two women and a man, caught in their acts of living, provide appropriate closure. It may be true that all of Stevens’s poetry is about writing poetry, but that does not make it—or this poem—narrow or exclusive. Stevens describes the creative drive as a basic force that is part of what it is to be human.

“The inspiration I think came from the poem which is on the tablet by the bridge by the river camp here in the college. Apart from the tourist self and the words, which of course are quite big elements in it, it’s not specifically intended to be a Chinese piece. It’s the sort of arrangement I would make for something like that, and it’s a very beautiful melody.”?




The golden willows by the riverside

“Of Modern Poetry” attempts to redefine poetry for a world with no stable structures or values. Its form approaches blank verse, but it is not close enough to that form to be so labeled. The form is flexible, with five stresses in most lines but six or four in others. The loose form is appropriate for this poem, as a part of its argument is that modern poetry refuses labels, designations, and categories of all kinds.

Are young brides in the setting sun;

The poem begins with its basic definition: Modern poetry is “The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.” Contemporary poetry must be self-descriptive; it must look at itself searching and must observe its own invention. Thus, poetry is not so much a product as an act or activity. In the past, the speaker continues, the “scene was set”: Poetry was formerly a matter of following the conventions. Everyone knew what was considered poetic material and what the acceptable forms of poetry were. This is no longer the case. The new poetry must be written in today’s language, and it must reflect changing times and shifting concerns. It must include a consideration of war, for example. (The poem was published during World War II.) It must make use of the materials that are currently available to create a representation of those who will read it.

Their glittering reflections on the shimmering river

The poem then compares the poet with other types of artist for whom performance is a major part of their artistry. These comparisons help communicate the point that poetry must be activity if it is to speak to the present. The poet becomes an actor, a musician, and a “metaphysician in the dark” in his attempt to portray the time period as it is, for those who live in it. Elements of other arts and disciplines are attributed to poetry.

Keep undulating in my heart.

The concluding lines add to the previous definition, stating that poetry must be “the finding of a satisfaction.” The earlier quest is identified as a search for “what would suffice.” These two words, “suffice” and “satisfaction,” suggest that poetry has as its goal a kind of consolation. The suggestion looks forward to Wallace Stevens’s major statement of his poetic theory, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” in which he develops a substantial argument concerning poetry: “It Must Give Pleasure.” In the conclusion to “Of Modern Poetry” he also offers possible subjects for poetry—“a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman/ Combing.” His subjects are all actions, activities which might be considered celebrations of the present by those who feel enough at home in it to move with its movements. Flux and flow are a necessary part of “the poem of the act of the mind.”




The form of the poem as a whole reflects its insistence that form not be prescribed for modern poetry. The twenty-eight lines are arranged according to no set pattern, but the suggestion of blank verse underlies the poem and gives a feeling of coherence to it. The poem is broken into sections which provide its major propositions. It is not a syllogism or formal argument, but it makes three main points. It begins by introducing the issue of modern poetry and the difference between past and present poetry. In its most extended section, it then describes the new demands made on poetry by a complicated and skeptical age. Finally, it comments on possible subjects for poetry.


The metaphors in this poem all point in the same direction; they are all attempts to describe modern poetry in such a way as to make “Of Modern Poetry” both explanation and example. Traditional poetry is described as a theater in which “the scene was set.” Past poets could repeat “what was in the script”: Their powers of invention were not taxed in the same way that those of poets now are. To introduce the new poetry, the poem personifies or animates poetry itself, saying that it has to “learn the speech of the place” and “think about war.” Poetry is then compared with an actor who is speaking into “the delicatest ear of the mind.” In turn, the actor is compared with yet another figure, a metaphysician, who is then presented as a musician. All these shifting comparisons are confusing if analyzed logically, but they serve to characterize a poetry that is itself shifting, grounded on uncertainty, and reflective of lived life rather than tradition or convention. That drama, metaphysics, music, and poetry are in some ways equivalent and that they can flow from and into one another is a part of the theme of the poem. The metaphors demonstrate what the poem explains.


That action is a necessary part of contemporary poetry is suggested by the flowing run-on lines and by the number of present participles and gerunds that appear throughout the poem, such as “passing,” “twanging,” “skating,” and “dancing.” The modern poetry that is the “poem of the act of the mind” reflects the particular actions which are contemporary life.

Xu spent a year studying at King’s College, where he was entranced by the work of Keats and Shelley, before returning to China to lead its modern poetry movement. Renowned for his love affairs, Xu died at the age of just 34 in a plane crash and the willow is now considered by his fans to be a shrine to lost youth. A memorial stone can be found beside the tree – an essential spot for Chinese tourists to grab a snap.



Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Metzingen 德国麦琴根购物村

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Germany’s answer to Bicester Village is Outletcity in Metzingen, the town in Baden-Württemberg, close to Frankfurt, where Hugo Boss was founded. It has little to lure anyone beyond scores of factory outlets. Hugo Boss was the first, but Prada, Nike, Burberry, Armani and Gucci, to name a few, have since followed suit. As the?Economist?points out, there’s an irony to the fact that many items bear “Made in China” labels, but high taxes and duties mean prices are around 40 percent lower than those found in Beijing.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.


Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Bonn 德国波恩

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

The former West German capital is another popular port of call. Chinese love classical music - particularly Beethoven - making his birthplace an obvious highlight of any trip to Europe. The city’s tourist board offers maps in three foreign languages: English, Chinese and Japanese.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.


Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Verona 意大利维罗那

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Both British and Chinese travellers flock to Venice, Rome and Florence – but Verona typically appears higher on the wishlists of China’s tourists. That’s because of the country’s collective adoration of Shakespeare’s?Romeo and Juliet. The play is popular on UK shores, of course, but the love is doubled in China as it was among the first of the Bard’s works to be translated into Mandarin, while its plot bears a striking resemblance to a famous Chinese folk tale,?The Butterfly Lovers. Expect to see queues at the popular, though not necessarily authentic, House of Juliet on Via Cappello (a statue of the character stands beneath her balcony).

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.


The Plain Sense of Things


A new Wallace Stevens emerges during the course of this brilliant and irritating book: Stevens the politically aware (although perhaps not quite politically correct) realist whose major themes and most significant works grew from encounters with the world of work and war. Longenbach draws from letters, reports, and the correlation of events and poems to provide a new reading of Stevens’ works and a new distillation of his interior world. This Stevens was never a poet of the ivory tower but was as fully involved in political events as were the 1930’s leftist critics who supposedly awakened him to the Depression and the threatening national scene. Longenbach’s book traces the pressure of reality upon the poet from his days at Harvard and his first poems, through his major collection, to the few poems completed just before his death. The critic concludes that Stevens never left “the plain sense of things” as source and subject and that the apolitical Stevens of many of the reviews and earlier studies is largely a myth. The arrangement of the material is basically chronological, although the writer breaks away from this pattern when thematic contingencies make other orders more convenient.

This study of Stevens is James Longenbach’s third book. His earlier two, Modernist Poetics of History (1987) and Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (1988), establish his credentials as an able and flexible critic whose approach is an eclectic incorporation of factual material and theory into a highly original discussion of modernist poets and poetics.

Longenbach’s arguments are very persuasive, even though the Stevens that he defines is somewhat reduced in stature. Evidence is unusual and surprising. For example, in addition to tracing early readings and influences (some of which have been unearthed here for the first time in Stevens scholarship), Longenbach looks at Stevens’ editorship of The Harvard Advocate. He attributes to the young poet articles and reviews that appeared during Stevens’ editorship, citing Stevens’ comment that as editor he had to make up most of the material for the issues himself. This kind of attribution might seem very tenuous, and in fact it sometimes drives the author to verbal gymnastics:

As the anonymous reviewer of Practical Agitation put it in the Advocate, Chapman “stands for purity, to be attained by neither the Democratic nor the Republican party, but by purity itself.” Forty-two years later, the poet whom this reviewer may have become would explain that “the first step toward a supreme fiction would be to get rid of all existing fictions.”

Nevertheless, the articles cited do indeed sound like Stevens, having the same vocabulary, sentence structure, and general perspective as his early journals, and they clearly show a political awareness not to be found in his other writings.

More convincing are the connections Longenbach makes between the events in the public mind, Stevens’ readings, and his poems. Readers and critics have had a tendency to overlook the war poems and to dismiss Stevens’ coda to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” that begins “Soldier, there is a war between the mind/ And sky” as a minor afterthought or even a superficial attempt at relevance. After reading Longenbach’s analysis, it is difficult not to conceive of this concluding section, which Stevens had asked to be placed on the cover when the poem was first issued as a privately printed book, as central. Longenbach’s Stevens turns out to be a war poet preoccupied with both world wars and with the national feeling of apocalypse that dominated literature.

Less reliable are some of the conclusions drawn from the letters. Of course, Stevens’ letters are used to support all conflicting viewpoints, and his expressed and tacit ambivalence to virtually everything leaves them open to any uses. Longenbach states, “Stevens recoiled at Hi Simons’s suggestion…that the poet was ‘on the right’”; the quotation following suggests that Stevens was claiming to be on the left. The rest of the letter, however, includes these unquoted lines: “I believe that [the workers] could procure these things [security, education, pleasant homes, etc.] within the present frame-work…I think this explains my rightism; when you say that I am on the right, the natural conclusion is that I think, as, say, a prebendary of Chichester thinks…However, I don’t intend to quibble with your use of the right; let it go.…” It seems clear that Stevens’s response hardly qualifies as a “recoil” and that he was concerned about the political label, not the position; Stevens did not like labels, and certainly did not wish to have his position congealed into stone.

A main hazard to the use of Stevens’ letters as indicative of his political position concerns his tendency to express ideas similar to those of his addressee, making him appear to veer in all directions. His letters to Sister Bernetta Quinn would lead one to believe he was a closet Catholic all along, while those to his agnostic friends are very different in tone. This accommodation does not mean that Stevens was currying favor with his correspondents, but suggests rather that he did not wish to be pinned down. He also, like most people, tried to find positions he could share with his friends rather than seek out arguments. In any case, the letter-examiner can find material to support any interpretation: In one letter, for example, Stevens claims definitely that the “supreme fiction” is poetry, and in another asserts that it is not. Only a critic examining Stevens’ inconsistencies would be likely to quote both.

Yet whatever reservations one has about some of Longenbach’s evidence, a reading of this revisionist study provides a Stevens who wrote different poems from those to which we are accustomed. This Stevens is not a man divided in two, with one self keeping careful track of details of insurance claims while the other created poems, as Robert Hass stated, while walking the streets of Hartford with “a pure exclusive music in his mind.” Rather, his two occupations are seen as sides of the same character. The poems must necessarily change, too, with this different genesis. They become sharp-angled poems clearly located in time and place, and they arise from and address an audience that is not confined to or even mainly composed of other poets.

These are clearly readings directed from the outside in, and their limitation is that what remains in the poem is only what the world can put into it. The richness of “The Snow Man” virtually disappears, its wonderful Zen vibrations lost to “the plain sense of things” in this reading:

With Chapman and Robins in the background, the

urgency of this call for the self to empty out

and behold the sheer otherness of commonplace

reality becomes even clearer.

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees covered with snow.

Is this commonplace reality the snowman is looking for, one might ask, and is not a “mind of winter” a strange qualification for such a quest?

The reading of “The Comedian as the Letter C” is more satisfying, for it provides a Crispin that is more realist than fatalist and far less a fool than the “introspective voyager” met in most readings. Longenbach’s discussion relates the poem both to the particular apocalyptic visions of the 1920’s and to the tradition of the Romantic quest-poem. He emphasizes that Crispin “goes in search not only of aesthetic but of social ideals.” “The Comedian as the Letter C” is a poem of renunciation of both “cultural apocalypse” and “the apocalypse of the self,” and its conclusion leaves Crispin not a victim but more of a victor whose place of arrival is “where continuities are affirmed.” Longenbach comments that “Crispin’s fate is a sign of the success of Stevens’ historical vision, for it was in Crispin’s ordinary world that Stevens wrote all his best poems.” This more positive assessment of Crispin coincides much better with Stevens’ expressed attitude toward the poem and its hero in letters and other poems.

Other readings are also provocative, especially those of the poems of Stevens’ middle period. (Discussion of his final poems is flimsy, providing little rationale for the selections of poems Longenbach privileges as representing Stevens’ true position.) The book as a whole is a brilliant juggling act that makes a single fabric of poet and poem, time and tradition. What is remarkable is that the prose never becomes murky and turgid; threads of fact and conjecture are woven cleanly together. The reader marvels at both the clarity of the perspective and the intricate development of the argument.

Documentation, however, is much messier. An annoying difficulty in using this book arises from the style of notation, which would be much more appropriate for a trade press book than for a text to be consulted by students and critics. No note numbers appear on the pages; presumably, this system has been devised to provide the pleasing appearance of unbroken text. The serious reader must pay for this pleasure. In each endnote, a couple of words are quoted, vaguely indicating what has been taken from a source, followed by an extremely sketchy source description. The reader cannot know if there is a citation for a given passage without turning to the endnotes for that page, and then, even if the citation is found, it is not clear exactly what has been cited. Only the most persistent will use the notes at all after the first few tries, and for such a book as this, precise information about sources is needed as support for the argument as well as for the reader’s own research.

Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things is clearly a book of its time, informed by theory (particularly New Historicist theory) and relying heavily on nonliterary evidence to support its conclusions. Critics are now turning to the Stevens of the office and of the Canoe Club to explicate his poems. On the book jacket, critic Louis Martz comments: “This distinguished book sets forth the Stevens that we will be reading for at least the next three decades: a Stevens in close touch with political and social conditions, a Stevens whose poetry arises from the texture of his times.” Whether or not this is the Stevens we want, Martz’s statement will probably prove true.

Thirteen ways of looking at a black bird


The first poem in the series sets the overall theme of the sequence. Like poems 4 and 9, it represents a list, but it is also an objective correlative, the vehicle of an unstated metaphorical equation. The list consists of “twenty snowy mountains,” a blackbird, and the blackbird’s eye, but it also contains one other item not mentioned. Every poem has a narrator (the narrator of numbers 2, 5, and 8, for example, is “I,” the author). Although there is no “I” in the first poem, someone is looking at this vista, so a fourth item in the list is the narrator. There are other things one might add by implication; if the narrator can see “twenty snowy mountains” in the distance, that means that his field of vision is deep and vast. The color white is specified in “snowy,” as is the color black in “blackbird.” Closeness is also implied, for the blackbird is close enough to the speaker to be seen clearly; in fact, it is so close that the narrator can see not only the blackbird’s eye but also the eye moving—it is, in fact, “The only moving thing,” so stasis is implied as well as motion. These are the contrasts of the poem: vastness (mountains) and smallness (blackbird, blackbird’s eye); distance and closeness; whiteness and blackness; motion and stillness. One may ask why the poet is speaking only of contrasts and why an eye is mentioned. Is it what the blackbird sees that is important? What does the blackbird see? No doubt it sees the narrator, but by the same token the narrator is using his own eyes to see the blackbird in its environment and to see the blackbird’s eye in the act of seeing him.

Thus, the subject of the first poem in the sequence is “seeing.” The theme of the poem might perhaps be put into these words: “Seeing is an act of perception on the part of a living creature.” The poem, like all the other poems in the sequence, has to do with the nature of existence. They are celebrations of life, but life seen with a cold eye—the clear eye of the existential poet, for Stevens believed that people ought to look directly and unswervingly at life, accepting it unflinchingly and without religious or sentimental props of any kind.

Poem 7 says this almost in so many words. The “thin men of Haddam” are the citizens of Haddam, Connecticut (Stevens lived in Hartford). The speaker of the poem asks the people why they “imagine golden birds.” He asks what is wrong with the real life that is objectified in the blackbird that “Walks around the feet/ Of the women” of Haddam.

The thirteenth and last poem of the sequence is a coda, a summing up and an ambiguous climax; it is itself the last item in the list of short poems that Stevens has compiled. What is happening has happened and will continue to happen. The blackbird sat waiting for the extraordinary things of everyday life to occur. The implication is that there are many more than these thirteen ways to look at the blackbird and for the blackbird to participate in the actions of life. The season is winter, as it is in the first poem and in others of the series. One thinks, perhaps, of another early Stevens poem, “The Snow Man,” in which Stevens said that “One must have a mind of winter” with which to regard the realities of existence.


“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a sequence of thirteen Imagist poems written in variable syllabic verse. Line length varies from two to ten syllables, but the norm is four to eight syllables per line, thus approximating in English the line lengths of Japanese forms such as the haiku, the senryu, and the tanka, all of which utilize five-and seven-syllable lines. In effect, Wallace Stevens’s series is a sequence of Japanese-style Zen poems. The unifying factor in the series is the image of the blackbird, which appears in each of the numbered sections of the set; each poem otherwise stands on its own and offers an insight either into “the nature of the universe,” as does the haiku, or into “the nature of mankind,” as does the senryu.

Each short poem in the series has its own subject, focus, and thesis, though all are related. The subject of the first, for example, has to do with existence and perception; the second, with perspective. The fourth poem makes the Zen Buddhist point that “all things are one thing.” Number 5 discusses the differences between statement and implication. In the ninth poem, the theme is that the universe is a series of concentric circles extending outward to infinity. Number 12 is close to what the Japanese call a “katauta”—a short, emotive question and its intuitive answer. It would be a katauta if the first line were phrased in the form of a question—“Is the river moving?”—the answer to which is, “The blackbird must be flying.”

These poems are quite unusual for Stevens, for they are Imagist in the style of his friend and correspondent William Carlos Williams, rather than in Stevens’s normal style, which was Symbolist. That is to say, these poems exemplify Williams’s dictum that there should be “no ideas but in things” and do not deal in what Carl Jung called “archetypes,” or manifestations in language of the basic drives of human nature, such as love (Eros), wisdom (Athena), or power (Zeus).


Each of these short poems is basically a metaphor, though most of them also contain other sensory devices, such as descriptions and similes. A metaphor is essentially a language equation: A = B. The first part of the equation is the subject (called the “tenor”); the second part is the object (called the “vehicle”). It was William Carlos Williams’s belief (as well as the belief of others of the school of twentieth century poets called Imagists) that, if one chose the proper object or vehicle, one would not need to mention the subject or tenor at all, for one would have chosen what T. S. Eliot called the “objective correlative”—that object which is relative to the idea being expressed. Thus, the idea would be clearly stated in the image itself.

For example, in poem number 5, which is really an embodiment of the theory stated in the paragraph above, there is a double tenor: “inflections”—that is to say, statements (denotations)—and “innuendoes,” or implications (connotations). The speaker does not know which he prefers. He gives an example of each. The metaphorical vehicle of inflections is “The blackbird whistling”; the vehicle of innuendoes is the silence “just after” the blackbird has stopped whistling. The reader is left to decide which he or she prefers—the sound of the blackbird’s whistle or the silence in which the overtone of the whistle hangs suspended like an echo.

Poem number 2 is a simile, not a metaphor. A simile does not make a strong equation between a tenor and a vehicle, but a comparison between dissimilar things with a point in common. The speaker says that he “was of three minds”—he was vacillating among three alternatives, much like a tree in which one can see three blackbirds doing three different things. Thus, the tree becomes an embodiment of the state of the speaker’s mind.

Poems number 4 and 9 are neither similes nor metaphors; they are statements, but the assertions are also endless lists by implication. If one were standing in a prairie, for example, where one could see a long way, one might, as in number 9, be able to follow a bird flying so far that eventually the eye lost track of it and could no longer see it. That would be the edge of a circle, the circle of sight; yet the bird is still flying, assumedly, and when it finally lands, that would be the edge of another circle. The horizon beyond that is yet a third circle. The earth’s orbit around the sun is a fourth, the solar system is a fifth, and the edge of the universe is a sixth; the edge of infinity would be the last. Stevens never says anything beyond pointing out the edge of the first “of many circles,” however; all else is implied.

Similarly, poem number 4 begins a list: One man plus one woman “Are one.” Upon consideration of this statement, the reader may well agree, for one is useless without the other and cannot exist separately for any length of time. Then Stevens adds a third item to the list: a blackbird. The reader may agree that, if two different things, such as a man and a woman, are in reality one thing, then it is possible that a third different thing, such as an animal, is also part of the same thing, the same “oneness.” If the reader accepts this third item in the list, then all other items Stevens (or the reader) might have added, by implication, are one thing. This is a Zen Buddhist concept, that all things are one. It points out the Japanese character of this poetic sequence.


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Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

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