Wednesday, July 4, 2007

One Way of Looking at the World

Everybody likes Wallace Stevens' poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The poem is divided into 13 mini-stanzas; the first section looks like this:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

To understand why these are the best three lines of poetry ever, really do your best to see the entire image--maybe this will help:

Then zoom in with your imagination, and place a single blackbird into the desolate landscape. There are no trees, no clouds--nothing but the bird and the landscape. Two great questions of perspective arise: 1) Who is the speaker?--who observes the lone observing bird? And, 2) Why is the bird's eye moving? What does it see?

In answer to the first question, the speaker must be unembodied. The perspective of the poem necessitates a non-physical presence, an unmoving presence. Pretty grand.

But it's the second question that really does the trick for me: the bird's eye is moving--why? I picture myself as the lone being in a desolate landscape, and I quiet my mind, and think about the moment my eye shifts its focus. The movement of my eye would not be instinctual, would not be an automatic response to a physical stimulus (nothing else is moving); instead, the shifting eye evinces a kind of aesthetic response. Stevens' blackbird moves its eye from one mountaintop to another because it is contemplative, because it wonders.

Is it possible that the blackbird wonders whether it is being observed, wonders if there is an unembodied presence?


Anonymous said...

You don't need motion to observe...the real question is why look away from things? Isn't what you're seeing right now (snow-capped mountain top) good enough for you? And who are YOU to say it's not?

Casey said...

Brian: observe is a verb, so it constitutes a kind of metaphysical motion...

Or: okay, but what observes and does not move?

And: Sounds like somebody needs a Diet Mountain Dew...

Casey said...

And also: if G-d creates a mountain range and puts you on top of it, I think he might be pleased to observe you looking around, trying to take it all in... I think the bird's attraction to total beauty is inspiring and admirable.

Daniel said...

You say the bird is attracted to total beauty. Is it just as inspiring and admirable if the bird is looking for a worm?

Casey said...

Absolutely--I once picked up 1,000 worms with my brother on an early-June afternoon and put them in a bucket; then we went inside and asked Dad to take us to 7-11 for a Slurpee... but before he came outside, we poured the bucket O' worms out behind his back tire. And when he backed out over the worms, we waited about one second to make sure he was over them, and then went... "Oooooooooh!"

And that was about the most beautiful moment of my life.

Daniel said...

That is a beautiful moment. Thank you for sharing it.