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Interpretive Strategies and the Meanings of Artworks: The Hermeneutical Situation

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With a case study of ethical constraints on conflicting interpretations of poems and metaphors

By Roger William Gilman

Consisting of the introduction to a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment

Of requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, 1985

Interpretive Strategies and the Mediation of Meaning: Dancing with Tears in My Eyes: The Hermeneutical Problem

I have been forced by what seems to be an unresolvable conflict of opinion among friends of mine to “turn” and examine, with deliberate thought and imagination, our shared goal of becoming serious students of new artworks.  Most of us in this group are painters or poets, composers or playwrights, actors or dancers.  Few are philosophers or critics.  Artworks have made us over into a self-conscious audience, if for no other reason than that we make them ourselves.

Not being trained for such philosophical “turning” (toward a new topic, such as “audience”) by anything more than raw experience, I feel as if, though having intended to turn smoothly on the surface of this topic like a swan on a placid lake, I have, instead, turned downward, diving into the lake, a mere duck, alas, and have gone in deeper, stayed down longer, and come up muddier than I would have liked or even thought possible: I discovered real problems.

Though each of us who gathers regularly in this friendly group seeks both a fairness and a freedom for our interpretations of the artworks we enjoy, our arguments about them do not seem to resolve themselves.  We wind up with different views because we have different definitions of the object which we interpret (some, for instance, some define an artwork in terms of its artist’s intention; others in terms of its formal structures); we have different ontological commitments (about the “naturalness” or “artificiality,” and the uniqueness or plurality, of the meaning of these works; and about whether these objects and events are imitations of reality, or whether they might be fullblown realities in themselves); we have different conclusions as to the aesthetic value of the works (whether they are interesting or boring, beautiful or ugly, well-made or sloppy, sincere or contrived): and different estimates of their human worth (whether moral or immoral, helpful or harmful, pleasing or painful, instructive or merely redundant, friendly or hostile, elitist or egalitarian).  On and on we argue.

And these differences are not all.  They do not include deeper ones below the surface of our arguments: the fact that we have different attitudes (destructive or constructive) and different purposes (persuasion or understanding) for interpreting anything at all. And even further down are differences concerning criteria for the validity of any interpretation of any kind.

After diving into the muck, I have discovered that our conflicts are caused by misunderstanding rather than by, say, stubbornness or egoism (with which we are well enough endowed I admit); but I did not conclude that understanding each other is impossible.  I found, rather, that shared interpretations merely require common strategies – common assumptions, definitions, topics, attitudes, purposes, and methods.  I found that a shared sense of the subject or definition of “the object of appreciation” (let alone some evaluation of its meaning and its worth) is determined by shareable strategies.  Our differences are seldom due to simple factual errors but more likely are due to the alternative “strategies of interpretation” which we practiced.

*  *  *

My discoveries have left me dancing at last, but “dancing with tears in my eyes”: happy with all the diversity yet angry with some who promote what at times seems a deliberate anarchy, a free-for-all of interpretations.  It turns out that we have so many different businesses with art that no one of them yields us an all-embracing dance.  The philosophical attempt to understand an artwork so that no one’s dance is left out, so that no one is left waiting in the wings saying “Where do I come in?” is sure in advance to fail.  All of us who love art, not just those who make it, are dancers in this sense.  Each of us interprets the work of are as we read, listen, or view it.  The most any hermeneutical philosophy can hope for is not to leave out any dancer (interpreter) forever.  We can only hope to talk in turns – turning toward each other.

No matter whom it legitimately leaves out, the dance must not prohibit a turn to dancers whose interpretations (of the score or the composer’s intention) represent the result of an alternative set of assumptions, definitions, topics, attitudes, purposes and methods rather than some complete disregard of the facts of the text.  Who is a “klutz” on the dance floor becomes a matter of perspective.  In this freedom and anarchy lie both the joy and frustration (the “tearful dance”) of pluralism.

And so, in the name of openness and for those who wish to consider, if only temporarily and hypothetically, the view of audience-response and interpretation elaborated here, I will now declare my own philosophy of the dance – my assumptions, definitions, topics, attitudes, purposes, and my methods – that will color what I say.

*   *   *

I will illustrate my understanding of the hermeneutical situation by demonstration.  I will work with a text of a poet I admire, Wallace Stevens.  My attempt at “turning toward the audience” (to understand artworks from the point of view of the reader rather than from that of the writer or of the autonomous text) was provoked by an especially frustrating attempt at conversation among a band of poets with whom I have for some time been associated.  We had been giving our various views of the poem by Wallace Stevens entitled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  It was hard enough to hear above the noise of the coffee bar that day, but harder still to get anything near agreement on the meaning of this poem.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

By Wallace Stevens

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

II

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.

V

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

VI

Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.

VII

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the woman about you?

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

X

At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.

XI

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.

XII

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

XIII

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

What is essential – or at least important or legitimate – to say about the meaning of this poem?  Of course, the answer depends on which audience is responding (or better yet, how each of the audiences responds).  But say the audience is composed of persons who voluntarily read poems – read not because of school assignments or an over-insistent aunt, but because they, like yourself, love poems and want to increase their skill in appreciating their point and value.

Our views concerning the meaning of Steven’s poem, views which we exchanged across a table littered with coffee cups and donut crumbs that day, were astonishingly diverse.  Many seemed to contradict each other.  My head hurt from the conflict; Daniel did a minute analysis of its form; Jules did a thematic study; Kim unfolded the plot of the poem; and Anna unraveled its argument.  Don pursued the poem’s ethical and political values; Mara could only hear in it the voice of a white, protestant, upper class American male.  Leah wanted to view the poem in a context of the author’s collected works and then follow up with an analysis that placed it into the larger history of the Symbolist Movement.  Mario wanted it placed in the intellectual and cultural history of the entire century! Anthony saw the sexual imagery of Freud entering into every orifice of the poem.  And Jacques found in it a theory of writing and of the text – an invitation to deconstruct it, to find it finally unreadable.

We must have developed at least thirteen different versions of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” that day.  But let me recount here just three of them (ones that I can recall in enough detail) each of which seemed to me compelling.

*   *   *

The first interpretation is an almost non-cognitive version of “Thirteen Ways…,” oriental and imagistic; the second makes “Blackbird” a surrealist and symbolist poem; and the third version regards “…Ways of Looking …” as a latter day metaphysical poem turning on a large conceit.

1

The following six points outline the first interpretation:

  1. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is not a single poem but rather is a cycle of poems.  It is a group of poems revolving around the central image of a blackbird which becomes an occasion for a flock of metaphors.
  2. This group of poems is a series of images, as in a slide show, where each picture is worth a thousand words.  Each image is an impression – like the French paintings Stevens so much enjoyed.
  3. Each poem is a sensation (the series, a collection of sensations) that, as does any imagist poem, connects the brain to the heart, the ear and the eye to the stomach.
  4. Each stanza is a tone poem, the group a series of moods or variations on a theme.  Unsentimental.  Almost harsh.
  5. There is something oriental about these poems, something condensed and economic – something indirect yet fresh.  They are black ink with quick brush. Like Japanese haiku.
  6. Yet there is also something Western hiding in each of these poems.  They have the rhythm and weight of proverbs or Bible verses.  They are aphorisms – paradoxical thought, not pictures.

Because point five (oriental) involves points two and four (images and moods) and because point six (occidental) involves points one and three (cycle and sensation), let me focus specifically on points five and six.  They describe two literary forms: haiku (an Eastern form) and aphorism (a Western form).  The tension in these poems derives from their contradictory form (compare points two and six).

*   *   *

Stevens loved Japanese prints and poems.  The title “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” echoes  such series of Japanese prints as Hiroshige’s “Eight Views of Omi,” Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji,” or Utamaro’s “Four Seasons.”

The poems in Steven’s cycle are close to the Imagists’ method and to Haiku technique; and they seem especially reminiscent of Amy Lowell’s “Twenty-four Hokku on a Modern Theme.”  In his poem “Metaphors of Magnifico,” Stevens uses the image of a famous Japanese print:

Twenty men crossing a bridge,

Into a village,

Are

Twenty men crossing a bridge

Into a village.

Haiku are strikingly imagistic and concise; one can infer general attitudes from the images or series of sensations presented.  The images are from scenes in nature, and in fact, in most haiku a specific season is mentioned or implied.  And in each, humans are seen as a part of nature or as dependent upon nature.  In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” poems II, III, IV and V are especially close to haiku.  And the last poem, XIII, seems parallel to “On a Leafless Bough,” by the ancient, and most famous of all Japanese poets, Basho:

In the darkening autumn dusk

A crow has perched upon

A leafless bough, alone.

Stevens writes:

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

The empty space and silence in these poems resemble those of Japanese prints and poems.  And when Stevens wrote “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the air was filled with theories about imagism and vorticism and haiku, particularly because of Ezra Pound.

Within these same poems Stevens contrasts the simple images of haiku with the complexity of aphoristic thought and expression.  Stevens had a lifelong interest in aphorisms – reading them (see his Letters, p. 91 and p. 133) and composing them (most notably in Adagia, a collection of aphorisms, and in other poems such as “New England Verses”).  He claimed they created in him a “balance” between the heights and depths of feeling and thought.  They have the “feel of truth” – even if they aren’t.

Yet behind the images and sensations, the perceptions and moods, are abstract ideas.  This cycle of poems is actually a series of aphorisms – at least in linguistic structure (if not content).  Each poem has the rhythm, central metaphor, reversal, paradox, as well as the phonetic, syntactic, and emotional closure (if not semantic closure) of an aphorism.

Each poem’s stability and finality as an independent unit is reinforced by the unused white space and roman numerals standing between them.  The title, too, suggests the same.

Each poem has the riddle-like structure of a good aphorism, and its images are almost subordinate to this syntax:

  • The use of very simple similes

I was like a tree

In which there were three blackbirds

  • The frequent use of “to be” predication which produces sentences that sound like definitions more than descriptions

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.

  • Statements chastened to the point of being almost circular

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

  • Or enthymematic (a truncated or elliptical) argument

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

  • Pictures that are huge surrealistic landscapes

Among twenty snowy mountains

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

  • Or else whose details seem somehow larger than life

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach . . .

  • The use of sententious diction that seems to echo that of ancient wise men like Solomon or Confucius

O thin men of Haddam

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see . . .

  • The use of convoluted riddle-like wording

I know . . .

But I know, too

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

The tension between the riddle-like grammar of each poem in the series and the difficulty for the reader of supplying a propositional paraphrase of its meaning (let alone an answer to its question or problem) makes for an intense, expect-full, frustrating, mostly non-cognitive experience.  The cumulative effect of the series is devastating.  We can feel the “one and the many,” the “white and black,” the “motion and stasis” hovering in the back of our minds – but we cannot get propositions formed.  It is maddening.

In this first version of the poem under interpretation, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is not one poem but many, and is not merely imagistic but also aphoristic.  These simple pictures hide complex thought and feeling.

2.

Unlike the first, the second interpretation of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is symbolist and surrealistic in its landscape and event.  Its structure and purpose is one of unity within decay.

In this second interpretation the blackbird is a symbol of death – or perhaps more precisely “death-in-life.”  Contradicting the view implied by the first version (that the blackbird is an autonomous, ever-changing symbol from poem to poem) the blackbird, in this one, is a consistent, cumulative symbol.  And contrary to the first version, “Thirteen Ways . . .” becomes a single poem with thirteen stanzas rather than a cycle of poems.

Taking a cue from Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” which states that “death is the mother of beauty” (the presence of death in life) this way of looking at “Thirteen Ways of Looking . . .” involves seeing the blackbird as a symbol of death.  Ravens, crows – all birds of black color – are often associated with death in literature and in popular imagination.  Poe’s “Raven” is just one such example.  Within this context, note Stevens’ first stanza:

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

This reading begins by noticing the three contrasts established in the first stanza between the following:

  1. The moving eye of the blackbird and the unmoving range of mountains,
  2. The blackness of the bird and the whiteness of the snow
  3. The smallness of the bird’s eye (the focus) and the grand range of snowy mountains (the background).

The eye (of death) moves among us the living (dead).  Is that “moving” physical or emotional?  Is that “eye” an ego or a camera?  Is the whiteness innocence? Is the small eye insignificant in the grand scheme of things?  These questions arise but may not be answered in the poem.  All we know at this point is that the blackbird seems small and somber and foreboding.

*   *   *

Stanza II is one of only three locations where the poet’s voice (self-reference) is introduced.

I was of three minds

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

A mind divided is indecisive and unsure of itself, if not totally mad.  Paralysis and sterility create

death in the middle of life.  The simile in this stanza moves us away from actual birds to symbolic

ones – and becomes a tool for further reading.

*   *  *

Similarly, in stanza III Stevens views the blackbird as part of appearances, not reality – as part of the world of silent gestures which is the play we humans have inherited.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

The foreshadowing “whirl” of the bird in the inevitable autumn decay seems an insignificant gesture.  Yet, as decay precedes death, as forgetfulness precedes senility, so too does a fall precede the final freeze.  We need no signs.

*   *   *

In stanza IV the word “one” seems problematic.  What might it mean?

 

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.

Does “one” mean unity, identity, wholeness, individuality?  Similarly, does “are” mean being, or

becoming?  In the most traditional romantic sense, a man and a woman are meant for each other; their union is

natural, inevitable.  They depend on each other and become inseparable.  As husband and wife they

also become “one” by reproducing their synthesis.  However, birth foretells death.  For as a man, a

woman, and their cycle of life are one, so too is death inevitably part of their life.

*   *   *

Stanza V.  The beauty of inflections comes by way of diction – shifts in tone or pitch, or shifts in gender or case.  A realist relies on the material directness of inflections.  They are musical.  The beauty of innuendoes, on the other hand, is immaterial and comes indirectly – as a hint or nudge comes upon us.  The beauty of innuendoes is imaginative and romantic and works by way of silence and memory.

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

The beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

The whistle of death is a warning; it is decay, the sound of worm in the wood.  The autumn wind whistles in the dark.  It is a noise heard.  It is inflected. Just after the whistle there is silence.  What’s left is memory.  A trace.  A melody recollected.  An indirect contemplation of winter.  Blackbirds represent us.  They are mimics.

The last two lines are reminiscent of Keats when (in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) he tells us that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”  The comparison might seem ironic for it would seem to require a stretch of the imagination just to describe the blackbird’s call (caw), which sounds like the squawk of a rusty gate, as a “whistle”; and a “whistle with inflection”? – such imagination!  The blackbird’s call consists of two parts – the first a whistle, and then the cackle: the beauty of inflections and the beauty of innuendoes, the blackbird whistling, and just after. The difference here is that Stevens is not sure which to prefer – the inflections heard or the innuendoes inferred – whereas for Keats, the romantic, the choice is very clear.  And why not?  The “blackbird” whistling — death knocking on the door — is material, though superficial.  “Just after” is death itself – immaterial, yet profound.

*   *   *

The long window between birth and death, between being and nothingness, is filled with many dangers.

Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.

Here, experience is a barbaric barrier between imagination and reality through which we see but dimly. Appearances, like shadows on a backlit cave wall, are what we must make do with.  And the shadow too often passing before us on that long wall is the shadow of death.  We dwell in the valley of the shadow of death.  The mood associated with this black bird is a mysterious, “indecipherable cause” (caws).  What kind of cause, however, is not clear.

Aristotle offers four possibilities: a material cause, an efficient cause, a formal cause, or a teleological cause.  The most mysterious of these is the teleological cause.  What is the purpose of death?  This pessimistic question lay on the surface of those poet’s minds born in Auden’s “age of anxiety” which witnessed one war after another for one good cause after the other.

*   *   *

The next stanza sounds like an Old Testament prophet warning of impending doom: death and destruction.

Oh 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?

Haddam, Connecticut was settled by early pilgrim Puritans – each a new Adam in this new Eden.  Its thinmen, narrow-minded, one-dimensional, scrawny and near death are desperate romantics.  They are nostalgic and deal in pure imagination — birds as golden as Meinong’s mountains – birds of paradise.  As do the birds in Yeats’ Byzantium, they lived in artificial worlds; and they were elevated.  Perhaps they lived with their heads in a cloud like Aristophane’s Socrates, or were metaphysical idealists hoping to live forever.  Men who worship false gods.  Dreamers.  Transcendentalists.

All the while, below them, are real women with their feet on the ground – earthly companions.  Their pleasures may be physical and temporal, but they are the real thing.  This humble material and sensual life is beneath them.  Though it has its feet firmly on the ground, this life seems commonplace to them.  Finite.  And real death walks among these temporal physical pleasures.  Face reality! Quit dreaming.  Grow up!  Have courage to be.  This seems to be Stevens’ message to such men.

In his verse play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, Stevens develops the same theme.  The play makes the point that aesthetic experience is deep and profound only if it involves human reality: poverty, suffering, and pity.

It is the invasion of humanity

That counts.

He points out that redness cannot be imagined in the abstract – impersonally.  It means something, and moves us: red is a wound full of blood, or grief-colored eyes, or a barnful of hope.  It is the invasion of reality – not romance – that matters.

*   *   *

In the next stanza, the poet confesses that by attribution we put order into life: we infuse noble (civilized) accents and those lucid (intelligent and smooth) inescapable (natural seeming) rhythms.  However, the poet cannot deny that entropy too is part of life.  An increase of entropy is an increase of disorder.  Order is general.  Chaos is unique.  It is not just the imposed and eternal universals but also the found and finite particulars that make up our experience.  He seems to suggest that our experience is composed of more than categories; it includes gathered sense data.

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

The loss of meaning (entropy) is just as much a part of our experience as is the attribution (or gain) of meaning.  In fact, some new disorder is the price we pay for any gain in order.  The laws of thermodynamics, discovered in Stevens’ time, describe this death-in-life.

*   *   *

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

Death marks the far edge of a life.  Our death is the end of one of many life cycles.  The character of a death circumscribes a whole life – gives it meaning and closure.  There are different deaths one can die.  Dylan Thomas, with his “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” is rather different than Wallace Stevens’ finding “the beauty of death.”  The difference is hell or heaven.  In short, we usually end where we begin – either heaven or hell.  That bed we make we must lie in.

*   *   *

At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.

The bawds of euphony are professional traffickers in voluptuous sounds which lack any meaning.  They are inferior poets, romantics who refuse any cacophony, chaos, or ugly reality into their poems.  They will not ruffle a rhythm.  But even these poor poets would be jolted into some raw expression at the sight of a death mask in an eerie, green light.

*   *   *

In the next stanza, the word “equipage” sticks out.  It can mean 1. Equipment for an army or for a soldier; 2. A group of small personal articles in a case for travelling; or 3. A carriage with all its attached equipment (horses, driver, baggage, and so on).

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.

In this case, the rider of the New Haven Railroad commuting home late in the afternoon (from work at an insurance company in the city) watches the shadows of electrical equipment on the roof of the rail car race alongside the train.  In other terms, the glass coach may be Cinderella’s romantic outlook on life.  A glass house is the “supreme fiction” – a fragile and elegant work of art.  But the glass bowl distorts the vision – makes us mistake shadows of ourselves, images constructed from our own dark minds, for reality.  The fiction that the viewer under glass is timeless (though the coach journeys through time) or that the soul lives forever (even if the body dies) is a supreme fiction.  Death is death.  Stevens will not build a golden bird.  His is black.  Stevens is no airy bawd of euphony.  He creates only down-to-earth walk-around-your-feet works of art.

The irony here is that this rider is as unreal as the shadow that scares him.  The “glass coach” implies, along with the precious sound of “equipage” and the precise sound of “Connecticut,” the ordered but overly sophisticated, artificial mind of a mathematician or philosopher, or an overly refined aesthetician – each so removed from reality that he is pierced through by death-anxiety over shadows, the appearances of things.  This is a precarious life!

*   *   *

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

It is spring.  The ice is breaking up.  The river begins to move.  Soon summer will arrive.  The river will be liquid.  Time is a river in space, so says Heraclitus.  A river runs through it.  Time heals all wounds.  And time flies.  It stiches things together.  The melting of ice, the thaw, brings warmth, and love, and regeneration.  The sun.

*   *   *

In the last stanza we end with the very same moment we inhabited in the first stanza, at the beginning.   Time has been compressed.  We realize that we have been on a journey, less through time (reality) than through consciousness (art).

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

Will the circle be unbroken? The circle is complete.  The circle is unbroken.  The closure is not only formal and semantic, but emotional too.  It is the type of closure that insures that the process will go on.

The first line, at first glance, seems paradoxical; but it is not. It describes a winter day that is dark early —  and is snowing hard.  The afternoon light has dimmed.  And the snow shows no sign of stopping.

The cedar tree, an evergreen with dark foliage, is covered with snow.  The tree is white.  The cedar is a tree from which coffins were traditionally made.  And in its thick rough limbs – motionless, waiting, watching – sits the black bird.  We’ve moved close up to death.  The twenty snowy mountains have faded far into the background . . ..   And we’ve circled back to where we began – the first verse.

This stanza provides a culmination of the mood which Stevens has built up imagistically.  In the first stanza the landscape was large and motionless, and the only moving thing was a small eye in a small dot inside that large backdrop.  But in the last stanza the landscape is cut down and moves – it is snowing.  And in contrast to the first stanza the bird is now motionless, a large frozen black blot in a small foregrounded landscape.  A solitary, silent bird sits in a cedar tree with snow.  He’s going now where; there are no miles to go before he sleeps.

This final mixture of death in life, of darkness and light, has stolen all the color.  Even the crisp black and white of the first stanza has become a chiaroscuro, blending blackness of the bird into whiteness of snow.  The bird is merely grey, as the day fades darkly into evening.

No longer is the blackbird simply an organizing point of contrast; the bird is now an omen of death.  Like Satan in Paradise Lost, flying up onto the Tree of Life in Eden and like a cormorant, huge and evil, brooding over the whole doomed scene, so too does the blackbird sit in the cedar tree: sinister, evil, and cold.

3.

From version two, in which Stevens’ meaning is taken “only from the text” and is visually significant, we cross over to version three: theory-rich, its source lies in autobiographical and critical essays rather than in the traditional use of a specific symbol.  [Version One is a cycle of poems with non-cognitive – emotional and paradoxical — significance; Version Two is a single poem with a central image – the blackbird – which stands for death-in-life.  And now Version Three is a highly unified single poem which presents a central analogy between the structure of metaphor and the structure of perception.]

According to this third interpretation, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” develops analogous theories about perception and metaphor.  It investigates the relation of “the given” and “the ascribed” as well as the role of this relation in the possibility of our having any experience at all.  Stevens finds this connection analogous to that between the two terms of a metaphor (its “tenor” and its “vehicle,” in the words of his contemporary, I. A. Richards).

This interpretation makes the poem an argument with twelve premises and one conclusion (stanza number XIII).  The argument has a dialectical structure.  This shows the influence of the “American Hegelians,” whom Stevens read.  These philosophers were practical dialecticians whose political applications of Hegel leaned either toward the right (in St. Louis) or toward the left (in Cincinnati).

Stevens’ discussion of metaphor occurs primarily in two of his essays, “Three Academic Pieces (I)” and “Effects of Analogy.”  He believes that metaphor is based on resemblances in nature (reality):

In metaphor (and this word is used as a symbol for the single aspect of poetry with which

we are now concerned – that is to say, the creation of resemblance by the imagination, even

though metamorphosis might be a better word) – in metaphor, the resemblance may be, first, between two or more parts of reality; second, between something real and something imagined

or, what is the same thing, between something imagined and something real, as, for example,

between two imagined things as when we say that God is good, since that statement involves

a resemblance between two concepts, a concept of God and a concept of goodness.

 

Since “poetry is imagination” and “poetry is a part of the structure of reality” poems are acts of the mind.  The poem, like a “final projection” of “so-and-so reclining on her couch”

Floats in the contention, the flux

Between the thing as idea

And the idea as thing.

For Stevens, the imagination stands to reality like the two terms of a metaphor.  In this sense, each stanza of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a “metaphor” consisting of two terms corresponding to what Stevens call the “imagined” and the “real” – the “idea” and the “thing,” or the “invisible” and the “visible.”  The resolution of these dialectical poles is the “idea-as-thing” (or the “thing-as-idea”).  The idea naturalized.  The real imagined.  This is in opposition to William Carlos Williams’ insistence that poems consist “not in ideas, but in things.”

*   *   *

In the initial stanza, what appears at first to be a realistic description of a natural scene is actually a “breach of reality” that creates two aspects of experience – a subject and an object.  The range of twenty snowy mountains is the object observed.  The eye of the blackbird becomes the observing subject.  The physically moving eye (or is it an emotionally moving “I”?) is motionless in the last stanza.  The grand stationary snow-covered landscape of the first stanza becomes small and close-up in the last stanza.  “It was snowing . . . and it was going the snow” . . . and “the blackbird sat in the cedar tree.” A bird on a branch going nowhere.

In the first stanza, the radical foreshortening coming from the word “among,” puts our eye “in the middle” of many possible views with but a turn of the head, or eye.  This is not a single view from far “out front” (a wide establishing shot) as in the last stanza. In this first stanza we see the eye that sees.  We are the eye that sees; and we are in the middle of things.  The seeing subject is an object seen. In the last stanza, we have simply become the eye.

*   *   *

In the second stanza the tree and blackbird are forced to become things-as-ideas.  “Several birds in one tree” — the divided mind — suggest that a plurality of ideas or commitments is not incompatible with a unity of consciousness.  Conflicting points of view, even in a single poem, are the result of “an act of mind.”  Stevens follows Whitman with his acknowledgment: “Do I contradict myself?”  Well then, “I must contain multitudes.”  Does the mind “project” or “discover” fragmentation and unity in the world?  Or like Kant, does Stevens suggest that there is a resemblance between the structure of nature and the structure of consciousness so that the answer to invention versus discovery question must remain forever ambiguous?

*   *   *

In the third stanza Stevens describes three movements.  The invisible motion of the wind is made visible by the whirling blackbird.  Reality instantiates Imagination.  Secondly, the chaotic motion of the blackbird (reality) is structured formally as the abstracted motion of a pantomime (imagination).  And finally, the formal motions of the mind (bird) compose an imaginative play (wind).  The idea instantiated is what Stevens calls the “idea-as-thing” (or “thing-as-idea”).

This metaphorical metaphysic seems to suggest that an object (X) can be seen as a member of a class (Y) even though it may not meet the strict — necessary and sufficient — criteria for membership but may merely bear a family resemblance to its prototype.  This, Stevens seems to say, is the structure of metaphor as well as experience.  “Juliet is the sun” means “See X as if it were Y.” His is a philosophy of “as if.”

*   *   *

The mathematical syntax of the fourth stanza is a play on Aristotle’s problem concerning “the one and the many.”  The plurality of man and woman is imaginatively wedded into unity by the concept of marriage.  So why not also find another unity in the relation of a man, woman, and blackbird?  In the first stanza the blackbird stood for subjectivity; in the second stanza for ideas; in the third for ideas-as-things. And now in the fourth stanza, it stands for things-as-ideas.  And in the next stanza the blackbird will stand for images (or representations).

*   *   *

The fifth stanza concerns inflections and innuendoes:

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

Stevens, himself, best explains this as a “breach of reality” which occurs at the threshold of perception:

According to the traditional views of sensory perception, we do not see the world

Immediately but only as the result of a process of seeing and after the completion

of that process, that is to say, we never see the world except the moment after.  Thus

we are constantly observing the past.  Here is an idea, not the result of poetic thinking

and entirely without poetic intention, which instantly changes the face of the world.

Its effect is that of an almost inappreciable change of which, nevertheless, we remain acutely conscious.  The material world, for all the assurances of the eye, has become as image in the mind.  The solid earth disappears and the whole atmosphere is subtilized

not by the arrival of some venerable beam of light from an almost hypothetical star

but by a breach of reality.  What we see is not an external world but an image of it,

and hence an internal world.

Stevens is not sure which to prefer – the beauty of “the given” or the beauty of “the ascribed” – declarative impressions or figurative suggestions. Why would we need to decide this?

*   *   *

In the sixth stanza, the shadow of the blackbird is an “indecipherable cause.”  Is a shadow a thing?  Or is an image of a thing also a thing?  Is a shadow reality or imagination?  Is its “cause” discovered in the world or is it superimposed?

Here again we have philosophical allusions to Plato’s analogy of the Cave.  And in the reference to the “barbaric glass” veil before our “long window” (eyes) that prevents certainty of understanding and perception we may have a reference to St. Paul’s comment (in I Corinthians, 13:12) that in this life we see through a glass darkly.  The mood here is uncertain.

*   *   *

Whereas in stanzas I through VI we are shown our ability of seeing “things-as-ideas,” in stanzas VII through XIII we see that we also experience “ideas-as-things.”  Stanza VII is central, for it asks a crucial question: if we must choose between imagination and reality which should we prefer?  Art? Or Life? What if there were no difference after all? What then?

The “thin men of Haddam” prefer pure imagination – golden birds of paradise.  The poet seems to prefer the down-to-earth blackbirds that walk around the feet of the women about him.  A purely aesthetic life is narrow, one-dimensional, ephemeral.  Pure theory without reality wants a world” free from beggars wet with dew” and dogs “howling at the barren bone.”  The choice would be for the material over the spiritual.  As he says elsewhere

It is the invasion of humanity

That counts.

And yet he is a poet!

*   *   *

Stanza VIII answers the question of stanza VII with the claim that a life without art (imagination) is just as impossible as art without life (reality). The thesis of the poem, expressed in this stanza, is that both imagination and reality (both the “ascribed” and the “given”) are involved in our experience and our knowledge.  We should not choose between them.  We can’t choose between them.

Here the “noble accents” and “inescapable rhythms” recall the “inflections” and “innuendoes” of stanza V and represent art and imagination.  The blackbird is the other term of the metaphor.  The instruction to see the “idea-as-thing” as if it were a “thing-as-idea” is the small metaphor in this stanza.

But the metaphor which forms the metaphysical conceit for the whole poem is the directive to see perception (which involves two terms – the “given” and the “ascribed”) as if it were metaphor (which also requires two terms – a “tenor” and a “vehicle”).

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

*   *   *

In the next stanza, the flight of a real blackbird instantiates a circle – a conceptual form of order.  An actual circle instantiates only one of many possible or imaginable circles.  The circle is a unity, a category, a generalization.  The blackbird gives us the “thing-as-idea”; it marks the edge of one of many circles.

*   *   *

In the tenth stanza, the sight of the “given” in an imaginatively “ascribed” light upsets those who rage for order, predictability, and harmony. The blackbird seen in a green light surprises the pedestrian poets.

At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.

*   *   *

And stanza XI.

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For a blackbird.

Here a person mistakes his own equipment, the tools of his craft and his own dark mind, for reality.  The “glass coach” is art, fragile and distorting.  The glass coach implies, along with the precious sound of “equipage” and the precise sound of “Connecticut,” the ordered but overly sophisticated, and artificial mind of a mathematician, philosopher, or aesthetician (in the popular mind).  This glass coach-rider is so removed from reality that he is pierced with fear in the face of appearances (images, imitations, representations).

*   *   *

Stanza XII.

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

Here the second sentence pretends to follow logically from the first.  But it is we who “attribute” the causality.  “Poetry increases our feeling for reality.”

*   *   *

In the last stanza, the generalized “time is a river” idea is segmented into afternoon and evening.  These are products of the mind.  The Bergsonian and Whiteheadian flux of stanza XII (the river) reappears as falling snow that will not stop.  The blackbird is the “real” or the “given.”  The tree is the mind.  And the result is the “idea-as-thing.”  Now we have some full circle from the “thing-as-idea.”  In the beginning, Stevens claimed that the “real” world is a product of ideas.  In the end he claims that “true ideas” (whatever those may be) conform to reality.

*   *   *

The movement of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is similar to Crispin’s movement between two philosophers in “The Comedian as the Letter C.”  Crispin begins by believing that “man is the intelligence of his soil” and proceeds to the idea that “his soil is man’s intelligence.”  Roughly, it proceeds from the consideration (of the first stanza of “Thirteen Ways . . .”) that mind dominates reality to the possibility (of the last stanza) that reality dominates the mind.  This is the problem of knowledge, of experience, and of meaning.  As Stevens says in his verse play Three Travelers Observe a Sunset, “As we traverse the whole of heaven we find that pure imagination loses its power to sustain us . . . it has the strength of reality or none at all.”   Stevens is not Yeats or Keats.

If, in making reality fit for human consumption, the imagination must stop its motion (flux), it may thereby falsify reality (see stanzas III, V, VI).  On the other hand, if the imagination projects itself into brute reality, it may bump its shins and be forced to revise itself (see stanzas IX, X, XI).  What is to be done?  Both imagination and sensation (both categories and data) are involved in what we know (stanza VIII).      This view is that of pragmatism.  American Pragmatism.  A special form of critical idealism.

Stevens’ solution is to believe that though consciousness is a unity (stanzas I, II, IV), knowledge, experience, truth, and meaning are plural (stanzas IX, XII).  This is our hermeneutical situation. Stevens gives us a concrete reality (a blackbird) as an image of an abstraction (imagination).  The poem is an epistemological success (we can know something!) but is a metaphysical failure (we can never know to what degree our knowledge or experience is a product of “the given” or of “the ascribed”).  We can never know the thing-in-itself unmediated by categories of the imagination.  Things, in this ultimate sense, remain “undecipherable.”

What Stevens tells us in his early poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is also shown in his later essays: the perceiver is inextricably involved with what he or she perceives.  In his collection of aphorisms entitled Adagia (linking the plural of “adage” to a musical term) Stevens writes, “Nothing is itself taken alone. Things are because of interrelations or interactions” and “Reality is not what it is.  It consists of the many realities which it can be made into . . . Things seen are things as seen.”   Here Stevens sounds like William James, the pluralist.

In other works such as “The Noble Rider and The Sound of Words,” Stevens tells us that

The relation between the imagination and reality is a question, more or less, of

precise equilibrium. Thus it is not a question of the difference between grotesque

extremes.

And in “Three Academic Pieces” he explores the same vein.  “What our eyes behold,” he writes, “may well be the text of life, but one’s meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no loss a part of the structure of reality.”

The filtering, interpreting, ordering consciousness is inevitably at work, and what results in perception is the image of the object.  This is what we have to work with.  As Stevens puts it,

 

The material world, for all the assurances of the eye, has become immaterial.

It has become an image in the mind . . ..  What we see is not an external world

but an image of it and hence an internal world.

Emphasizing the “epistemological (sic; hermeneutical) function of poetry,” Stevens observes that “Poetry is to a large extent an art of perception and . . . the problems of perception as they are developed in philosophy resemble similar problems in poetry.”  Here we see that Stevens fails to distinguish knowing from understanding, epistemology from hermeneutics.  Stevens metaphorically reveals our hermeneutical situation rather than our epistemological one.

In “On Poetic Truth,” Stevens says that “Poetry has to do with reality in its most individual aspect.  As isolated fact, cut loose from the universe, it has no significance for the poet.  It derives its significance from the reality to which it belongs.”  And so in conclusion, it seems clear that Stevens, in his later essays, confirms in prose what he presents in his early poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  Art is Life. And Life is Art. There are no things except in ideas (and vice versa).  And since many of his later poems have this same theme, this early poem’s appears to be central to his life’s work.

*   *    *

Return now from my report to the long day of arguing with my friends: I felt numb.  I went silent, staring at the dregs in my coffee cup.  Such conflict!  Yet such freedom!  Such diversity!  Shortly I got up and walked out of the coffee house “dancing with tears in my eyes.”

It was on the home that I stumbled upon the two metaphors I have just now have been turning between my thumb and fingers.  Dancing with a “turn” toward the reader (as partner) represented my desire to describe the problem of interpreting metaphors (and other artworks) in a new way (from the viewpoint of the audience); while dancing “with tears” in my eyes expressed my conflicted feelings about all this variety and conflict of interpretation which readers can give to metaphors (the seeing one thing as if it were an other).

*   *   *

So, from just three interpretations of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” I could already see the horizon: interpretive strategies and their results can stand in several different relations to each other: compatible, contradictory, or incommensurate.  And this fact presents a problem of rationality.  One strategy may tend to see wholes (poems) where another sees parts (stanzas).  One strategy may be inclined to see emerging things (blackbird as a shifting image) where another sees a stasis (blackbird is a cumulative image).  One may see feelings (blackbird creates a mood) where another sees symbols (blackbird is death-in-life).  One may be inclined to find themes about life (the reality of death) where another sees only art (the structure and function of metaphors). One may tend to find meaning in traditions (blackbirds stand for death) when another strategy uses the life of the author (blackbird is about perception).  One may typically lead to optimism (we can know), the other strategy to pessimism (we will die).  One will organize or structure itself dialectically (both experience and expression are syntheses) while the other will work analytically (systematically find death in all its instances).  One will work within a canon (Stevens’ inflections and innuendoes = Keats’ melodies heard and unheard).  Some strategies will find the poem to have a purpose (to create knowledge or to lament mortality) while another strategy will be inclined to ignore purposes all together (“Thirteen Ways . . .” is a well a well-made object).  Some strategies will find that sound makes sense (for instance, “Haddam,” “equipage,” and “Connecticut”) where in others sound is merely sound (caws).  Some strategies will be oriented toward the eye (the blackbird sits in a cedar tree) while others will orient themselves in the brain (the phenomenology of perception, the philosophy of language, and aesthetics).  One strategy sees arguments (for the conclusion that just as the categories run their fingers through sensations to create experiences or perceptions so too does the vehicle term run through the tenor term to create a metaphor) where another sees only description (of how life moves through a cycle).  Some will try to be “realistic” (the circle the bird inscribes is just a circle) while another may be “symbolic” (the circle is the cycle of life).  One strategy may be sensitive to circular structures (the poem ends where it begins) where another can see only linear perspectives (the poem develops toward a point).

This short list, generated from a modest example, serves only to illustrate the general way strategies of reading generate interpretations, and makes the point that both strategies of understanding and interpretative results can stand to each other as friends, enemies, or aliens.

But then a new problem presented itself to us: Are there any moral limits to the reception (the reading) if a text?  Here I perceived another “turning” – away from metaphysics and epistemology toward ethics and aesthetics . . . a turning that would shape my own poetic and philosophic writing.  It was a turning toward a new view of the human shore, that interface between dimensions of life that agitates us until we grow a soul . . . and become pearls of great price: it was a turn toward ethics of reading and criticism.

In the end, I have learned how to dance (interpret) in a variety of ways: classical and modern; in jazz, folk, and ballet.  I have found that subduing variety and conflict is harder than learning to live with the various ways of interpreting.  Living ambiguity is work.  I have learned to love the turning in spite of the tears it causes.

We argue still, this tenacious gang of friends.  But we argue differently now – with different purpose, different attitude, and different result – because we recognize now what we did not understand before: that we often talk past each other: that our different interpretations are based on different strategies, not different facts: different assumptions, definitions, topics, attitudes, purposes, and methods.  And we dance differently now mostly because we understand the moral dimensions of reading and writing.

But how we arrived at this understanding and what that understanding looks like (“everything goes” does not follow from “many things go”) is fodder for another story.

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