There’s an interesting discussion (at least I find it interesting) over at The Plumbline School. A poet/academic named Conrad DiDiodato, after a post with a few ripostes, has offered up an example of the sort of reading he practices. He’s chosen to write about the first poem in Wallace Stevens‘s famous sequence “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I recommend you read his comments before reading mine, which I’ve deposited in the comment stream to his post. I’m pasting my reading of the poem below, some of which won’t make sense unless you read his commentary first.
Here, by the way, is the poem we’re discussing:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
And here’s my alternative reading:
Conrad, I’m not going to critique your critique except to ask a couple of questions:
1) Why do you feel the need for a “paratext” in order to read these three lines?
2) By “linguistic units” do you mean the words, phrases, and finished sentence that constitute the poem? And if so, are you seriously claiming that criticism can happen without taking these things into account?
Now let me just offer my own brief reading.
First of all, any real mountain plays host to all manner of moving creatures, which means that Stevens has set before us an iconic landscape, not a realistic one. It is an image of stasis; the word “snowy” implies whiteness: hence a white stasis.
Within this stasis Stevens places one moving thing, which belongs to a creature whose color is the opposite of the landscape; but the creature itself isn’t moving either: only its eye moves.
If the holistic image in these three lines is iconic, what does it symbolize? It wouldn’t be safe to push too far here, since this poem is only one of thirteen “ways” of viewing a blackbird. But I think it’s clear that Stevens has set before us an image of emotional frigidity, which is relieved only by the blackbird’s act of seeing. A real blackbird among snowy mountains would be looking for food and/or shelter, but Stevens’s iconic blackbird is different: as presented in the poem, it does nothing but look–for what, we don’t know.
Of course, the blackbird’s looking is the mirror image of the poet’s looking, and the reader’s. Which leads me to wonder about Stevens’s rhetorical stance. I know that as a reader I don’t feel implicated by the poem’s image, and Stevens doesn’t insist (in these lines, at least) that the stasis is common to everyone. So I have to read it as Stevens’s own stasis, his own frigidity, which is relieved by his own looking (the mirror image of the blackbird’s).
Having said all this, I think there may be a further clue in Stevens’s use of the word “way” in the title. When applied to the white mountain/blackbird’s eye, we might be forgiven for finding an allusion to the yin/yang symbol of Taoism: the white (yin) portion of the symbol with its black(bird) dot. I imagine someone has followed this line of interpretation, but I haven’t taken it very far in my own mind.
The only truly puzzling thing about the poem is the number “twenty.” Because of its specificity it feels allusive, but to what it alludes (if anything) I don’t know. One possibility, though, following the Taoism thread, might be the I Ching (Book of Changes), where we find that the twentieth hexagram is Kuan, “Contemplation” and/or “View.” My Wilhelm/Baynes translation begins with this statement: “A slight variation of tonal stress gives the Chinese name for this hexagram a double meaning. It means both contemplating and being seen….” Certainly this is what Stevens does in his poem, and what he inspires the reader to do. Well … why not?
I do realize that in resorting to the I Ching and Taoist philosophy I have invoked my own “paratexts.” The difference between my practice and yours lies in the fact that my associations arise from the words on the page, which you specifically say you’re not interested in, while yours arise from a theoretical overlay to which you want to make the poem conform. Even so, I would never suggest that this part of my reading is reliable or authoritative or even valuable to anyone but me. Unless some scholar can show the Stevens was aware of Taoism and the I Ching when he wrote this poem–or that he’d seen some Chinese painting with twenty mountains in it–I don’t think my paratextual speculations deserve to be called true criticism, and I doubt that any commentary can be true criticism if it depends on paratexts.