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Although astronomical spring won’t arrive for another three weeks, the earliest signs of spring bird migration are all around us. That’s why our homeschool poem-of-the-week for the first week of March is a fun poem that’s really a collection of photographs: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens (1879–1955). Photograph number XII in the collection captures our seasonal theme: “The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying.”
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
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
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
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.
Wallace Stevens was one of the most prominent American poets of the twentieth century — a Pulitzer Prize winner and a representative of the school called “Modernism.” The Modernists reacted against the structured formalities of late nineteenth century poetry and adopted looser styles that were often unrhymed and non-metrical. “Thirteen Ways” was influenced by Japanese haiku, and while its components aren’t in the standard haiku form — three lines and seventeen syllables — they share the gem-like imagistic style of haiku.
When you share a poem like this with beginning students, don’t worry about deep meaning or symbolism. Stevens is having fun creating word-pictures, and you should have fun along with him. An ideal exercise for this poem is to ask your students to draw a picture to represent one (or all) of the thirteen ways of looking. I think the first stanza is magnificently visual, like a master photograph: “Among twenty snowy mountains, / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird.”
Although Stevens was one of the most widely read and studied American poets of his generation, he spent his whole adult life working as an insurance company executive in Connecticut, and he wrote and published his poetry in his free time. (There are probably multiple homeschool career lessons embedded in those facts.)
Here is Stevens himself reading “Thirteen Ways” — have your students read along as they listen:
One of the reasons young people should study and know about famous poems like this one is that they turn up everywhere. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has been so popular that the phrase “Thirteens ways of looking at…” has become a standard hook for essay writers of all kinds, as any Internet search will demonstrate. (Be advised that not all results of the search will be suitable for children.) One example that is suitable for children is the delightful poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Dragon” by Mari Ness:
Among twenty knight-blasted mountains
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the dragon.
And so on, through all thirteen. 🐉
What wonderful words and playful poetical productions will you be studying in your homeschool this Leo Term? 😊
❡ The only moving thing: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 😊
❡ Explore more: The website of the Poetry Foundation includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Wallace Stevens) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers. 🖋
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Add your name to our River Houses mailing list (riverhouses.org/newsletter) to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox, and print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar (riverhouses.org/calendars) to follow along with us as we visit forty-eight of our favorite friends over the course of the year. 📖