13 Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens: Found haiku, and a poetic tribute

Make sure you make it to the bottom of this post. There is a delicious candy surprise waiting for you. Or, um, a pile of Brussels sprouts, depending on your opinion of derivative, semi-parodical poetry.

The other day somebody compared some of my work to Wallace Stevens’s. This was hugely flattering to me because, although I don’t really believe in picking favorites when it comes to poetry (or really anything else), if someone held a gun to my head and said, “Name your favorite poet or else,” I would have to say (or rather, probably, shriek in desperation), “Wallace Stevens! Wallace Stevens!”

Like everyone else who knows a fair amount about both Wallace Stevens and haiku, I’d noticed the resemblance between haiku and probably his best-known poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” William J. Higginson and Penny Harter, in The Haiku Handbook (great book! read it!), quote the first stanza as an example of the influence of the haiku on early-2oth-century poetry:

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

I could probably go on for a while about what Stevens’s theory of poetics was and why he’s so great and everyone should love him, but you don’t really care and if you do you can go read about him on Wikipedia or even better, pick up a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind from someplace and just read his poetry until you fall over in a dead faint.

What you are really looking for here is some pseudo-haiku culled from Stevens’s work. And although I have some reservations about this exercise because I don’t think it gives all that accurate an impression of what his highly metaphorical, dense, intellectual poetry is about, I can oblige you, forthwith:

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the falling leaves
(“Domination of Black”)


 

the grackles crack
their throats of bone
in the smooth air
(“Banal Sojourn”)


 

The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
(“Ploughing on Sunday”)


 

The skreak and skritter
of evening gone
and grackles gone
(“Autumn Refrain”)


 

A bridge above the … water
And the same bridge
when the river is frozen
(“Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”)


 

Long autumn sheens
and pittering sounds like sounds
on pattering leaves
(“Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue”)


 

The grass in in seed.
The young birds are flying.
Yet the house is not built
(“Ghosts as Cocoons”)


 

Slowly the ivy
on the stones
becomes the stones
(“The Man with the Blue Guitar”)


 

A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter
when afternoons return
(“The Poems of Our Climate”)


 

a bough in the electric light…
so little to indicate
the total leaflessness
(“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”)


— All selections from Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play

*

Did you make it all the way through that? Okay…as either a reward or a punishment (you decide), I am now going to inflict on you a rare example of my non-haiku poetry. It is of course haiku-ish (being modeled on a haiku-ish poem), so it’s not too terrible. I don’t think. Oh — be sure you’ve actually read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” before you read it, or the full effect will be lost on you.

Something else you need to know to fully appreciate this is that Wallace Stevens famously had a day job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut.

Thirteen Ways of Looking At Wallace Stevens

I.
The view from the window
Of the poet’s office:
Thin clouds spread
Over a hazy sky.

II.
I drive down the avenues of Hartford
Looking for Wallace Stevens
Or for what he has left behind.

III.
Precision, quiddity, and fancy,
The shape of Wallace Stevens’ mind.

IV.
A man sits at a mahogany desk
Holding his pen completely still over
An empty ledger book.

V.
The black marks on an actuarial table
Look much like the black marks
On a page of poetry.

VI.
Wallace Stevens walks to work
Down streets blackbirds have flown along.

VII.
What will you pay me, Wallace Stevens,
Not to finish this poem?

VIII.
I wake from a strange dream
Through which Wallace Stevens was flying.

IX.
The shadowy quality of a day in the mountains
Spent reading Wallace Stevens.

X.
Unassimilable,
Like the thing and the image of the thing,
Like the two parts of Wallace Stevens’ life:
The doing, and the being.

XI.
Wallace Stevens leaves the office,
Carrying an umbrella,
His briefcase swinging
At the end of the arm he writes with.

XII.
The two eyes of the poet,
Seeing in two directions.

XIII.
I sit down to write a poem.
I look up, and there is Wallace Stevens.
He casts his shadow over the paper.

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8 thoughts on “13 Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens: Found haiku, and a poetic tribute

  1. Wow! This is great – I do like twisting literature and memes back on themselves. You’ve written a wonderful example!

    I would say my favorite poet is William Carlos Williams – whose work also includes what could be a lot of “breakaway haiku”

    As for time machines, someone has said that writers write because they are unsatisfied with reality and want to create their own.

    • Thanks, Lawrence. Yeah, WCW is pretty great too, and really more haiku-ish than WS.

      As for reality … humankind cannot bear very much of it. 🙂

  2. angie says:

    I haven’t read much of wallace stevens, except for the blackbird poem; now I’m going to. he’s amazing!

    I love this:

    the grackles crack
    their throats of bone
    in the smooth air

    • Great! But I have to warn you, the haiku-like things above really don’t give a good sense at all of what Steven’s poetry is like. I skimmed through a 400 page book to find those 10 examples of things that could pass for haiku — most of the rest doesn’t even come close. Stevens is fantastic at images, but mostly the poems are very metaphorical, there are lots of literary and historical allusions, there is lots and lots of abstract philosophizing.

      That being said, here are a few of my favorites that I think a haiku fan would really enjoy (most of them are early work, he got more abstract and intellectual as he went on):

      The Silver Plough-Boy
      Domination of Black
      Six Significant Landscapes
      In the Carolinas
      Gray Room
      Metaphors of a Magnifico
      Earthy Anecdote
      Banal Sojourn
      *Anecdote of the Jar — may tie with “13 Ways…” as my favorite Stevens poem
      *Gubbinal
      *The Snow Man
      *Bantams in Pine Woods — wonderful language, almost nonsense verse
      *The Emperor of Ice Cream
      The Brave Man
      The Pleasures of Merely Circulating
      *The Reader
      Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery (yes I know, not at all politically correct — although I believe he was being tongue in cheek — but many wonderful haiku-like images in this one)
      A Postcard from the Volcano
      The Man with the Blue Guitar
      *A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts (another huge personal favorite)
      The Poems of Our Climate
      *Study of Two Pears (fantastic poem)
      On the Road Home
      Variations on a Summer’s Day
      Phosphor Reading By His Own Light
      God is Good. It Is a Beautiful Night.
      No Possum, No Sop, No Taters
      Thinking of a Relation Between the Images of Metaphors
      *The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm (love this)
      The Solitude of Cataracts
      An Ordinary Evening in New Haven
      The Course of a Particular
      A Quiet Normal Life
      The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain
      First Warmth
      A Clear Day and No Memories
      A Mythology Reflects Its Region

      … okay, that list turned out way longer than I thought it would. 🙂 The starred ones are the ones that I really, really like and read over and over again and have half committed to memory. I’ll be interested to hear what you think …

      • angie says:

        haha — looks like I’ve got some homework to do!
        my favorite poet and kindred soul is lucille clifton; it will be interesting to me to read someone I’ve not read before, to see if we can teach this old dog a new trick or too.

        thanks!
        😀

      • peter says:

        Great list, thanks. I would vote an asterisk, or ‘star’, for certain of the Variations on a Summer’ Day, finding favorites among the 20 offered there.

  3. Garry says:

    My favorite found haiku from Stevens:

    it was evening all afternoon
    It was snowing and it was going to snow
    the blackbird sat in the cedar limbs

    (8/11/9) So what if it’s 28 syllables! It’s great!

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