One of the poems I like to ask my students to read fairly early on in the year is Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The poem itself is a kind of case study or mini-workshop in flexible thinking. Each of the thirteen sections represents a conscious attempt to think about the blackbird in a different way.
In class, we read the first two or three stanzas together and I ask the students to try to articulate what way of thinking is represented by the stanza. I ask the students to provide a label for the kind of thinking represented by each stanza. Stanza One, for example, reads
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
What kind of thinking is this? How is the blackbird being used in this stanza? What are the observable features of this way of thinking? Well, students are quick to point out that there are several different kinds of contrast on display: there are many mountains, but only one blackbird; the mountains are white, the blackbird is black, the mountains are big, the blackbird is small; the mountains are still, the blackbird's eye is in motion. So how are we looking at or thinking about the blackbird here? Perhaps the word contrast might serve as a label here.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
This stanza uses the blackbird in a different way, shows a different way of thinking about the blackbird. The first line makes a statement. Most students are familiar with the expression "I was of two minds about the matter" and hypothesize that this clause means something like the same thing: the speaker has three different - and probably incompatible -ideas or inclinations going on simultaneously in his head. The rest of the stanza is simply a simile. The speaker comes up with a visual analogy: my state of mind is like a tree with three blackbirds in it. This kind of thinking move toward an emphatic analogy is one that many of us perform regularly and unreflectively when we say things like "I've got butterflies in my stomach."
I often use this opportunity to read to the students the opening lines of Merchant of Venice, which they will be reading later in the year. Antonio speaks first: the opening line of the play is "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad..." In reply, his friend Salerio makes a speech which begins with "Your mind is tossing on the ocean..." Salerio, like the speaker in Stevens' poem, reaches for a pictorial analogy to convey something going on inside his head. A label for this kind of thinking might therefore be simply analogy. (T. S. Eliot had a more sophisticated phrasing: talking about the way that a visual image can convey an abstract concept or an emotional state, he coined the term "objective correlative" - something concrete (objective) which correlates with something abstract.
Having modeled the task by going through the first few stanzas, I divide the class into groups, assign each group two of the remaining stanzas, and ask each group to make some clear, accurate observations about the kind of thinking that is on display in each stanza. I also ask them to come up with a label: what we would call this kind of thinking. Then each group presents its analysis.
There are a couple of spinoff points here. First of all, students will sometimes stuck because they will say they do not know what a particular stanza "means". I remind them that I'm not asking them to tell me what it means, I'm asking them to tell me what kind of thinking this is, how this kind of thinking is different from the thinking in the previous stanza or the following stanza. We can, and will, wind up talking about how interpret particular stanzas might be interpreted. But that's not what's at issue in the task at hand. Secondly, I do make a point, if not in this class then later, of calling the students' attention to the fact that not only are the syntax of each stanza is also unique, and is in fact one of the ways in which the nature of the thinking is made manifest. That becomes relevant as the students tackle the homework. Thirdly, it has always struck me that this is in spots a very funny poem, a very playful poem, and that the humor is frequently lost upon the students unless I make some effort to call their attention to it.
The homework assignment is to go home and write a poem entitled "Five Ways of Looking at a _______." Each student gets to choose what to fill in the blank with. I tell the students that the "Five" is an arbitrary minimum number - they can try out as many "ways" as they like.
I like this assignment for a number of reasons. First of all, I view it as a good critical thinking exercise. Being able to shift your point of view and look at anything - an object, a concept, an argument, a work of literature - from more than one perspective is a valuable thinking skill and a necessary precursor to breadth and depth of understanding. So the assignment provides a chance to practice, to exercise, to play with this particular thinking move. Beyond that, I am consistently surprised and impressed by what many of the students come up with. One of my goals for the course is to give the students opportunities to grow as writers by asking them to write in ways they might not have tried before. When they do so, they often surprise themselves, and me. Below is a portfolio of student poems written by sophomores in response to this assignment.
Seven Ways of Looking at a Piano
In a cold silent room
the only thing that can be heard
is the light dancing notes of a piano.
pound on its black and white keys
the monster screams.
A mass of somber people cloaked in black
sit silently in the hard pews of a church.
The piano is playing the final goodbye.
Happiness and kindness
nurture my soul.
Happiness, kindness and the piano
nurture my soul.
On the piano,
black and white together make harmony.
Why can't that be so for us?
So beautiful is the perfect song
of the piano,
that even the angel choir in heaven
stops to listen.
At the sight of the piano,
my heart quakes with fear.
One day closer
to the night of the recital.
Thirteen Ways to Look at Clouds
A parade of circus
Animals marches nimbly across
The blue stage,
Dancing in the drafts.
Thin, white vapors navigate
The dark expanse of sea.
Shining rings of clouds
Brought on cooler altitudes,
And indicated a change in atmosphere.
Drops of water echo
The fading strains of the sun
In reflected rose-colored streaks
And marigold stains.
A bleak pall hung
Weakly around until dusk.
Hiding behind opaque veils,
Beyond the misty eclipse.
My Grandmother fights
The wrinkled mists that
Obscure her memory.
It took me eighteen years to see
Past the hazes along my horizons.
I am a piece of cloud in the heavens,
You don't have to be surprised,
And don't have to be pleased.
With the faintest breath, I am gone.
She watched the sky for weeks.
Waiting for the softest whisper
The shadow of
The spectral icebergs
Beneath a silver moon
Mirrored in the still water
Of the puddles on the pavement.
Torn under heavy footsteps.
Thrown scattered on the sidewalks.
At the sight of the gold-tinged clouds,
The birds began to sing.
The sky is clear cobalt unbroken blue all around in sweeping panorama.
Eight Ways of Looking at the Wind
A boy blew bubbles
And I mingled with them in his breeze.
Library, first floor, but well far from the gusty door
Where dusty book shelves dwell and
Black desks row: There lay the inert book that turned its last page.
Within that barren desert
Grows an oasis
Where palm fronds quiver.
Grandma Amelia lost her wind
As she walked the tree-laden mountain
Where wind willingly weaves.
Her sails are full.
What more is there to say about pregnancy?
My head is tonsured,
For the wind's long curls are
If I could see the wind,
It would not matter:
When winds chill,
They burn the flesh.
When winds steam,
They burn the flesh.
Blessed are those who
Watch the winds.
Ten Ways of Looking at the Sun
Two lovers sit embraced
On a blanket in the sand.
They watch the sun rise majestically
Over gentle neon ripples.
Warm rays caress their face.
Day after day it treks circuitously across our sky.
Each year it completes one revolution around us, the center.
Has the great sun no free will?
The sun shines its light lovingly
Upon the lush meadow.
I wonder if all stars
Taste as sweet as the flavor of the sun.
The sun hides behind a
Black ball in the sky.
The day is suddenly night.
The birds cease singing and
Return to their roosts.
The gods must be angry.
When was the sun's birthday?
When will it glimmer its last sparkle of light?
Well, all I know is that it will be a sad night.
In the desert, a lone man stumbles in the sand
But no grains stick to his flesh.
The unforgiving sun beats upon his back.
Meanwhile, further north of the tundra
A half-frozen man stomps through the snow.
His red protruding nose stings with cold.
He stops to make a fire.
Gray clouds conceal the sun behind them
Their dark color carries the mood of the day.
Like the changing of seasons brought by the sun
So was the state of the madman.
The sun sinks below the horizon in the west.
In it's absence, the chilling presence of darkness
Envelops the land. Everything sleeps awaiting
The coming of the source once again.
11 Ways of Thinking About the World Trade Center Bombing
September 11, 2001
America stumbled, like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.
Have we reached the point of no return?
Have we too become too cocky and sure of ourselves,
That we fly too close to the sun and plummet to our doom?
Yell for joy and crowd the streets!
Today is a day for happiness
America is finally brought to its knees
From our undeniable craftiness
Maybe they will get the point
And stop their evil ways
American icons are destroyed
Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
Bustling with activity
The World Trade Center once was
Now the only thing moving there
Is the wind blowing through the rubble.
A man woke up early that morning
A plane to catch, he thought
He moved slowly and quietly
As to not awaken his sleeping wife
They'd had a fight the night before
About him traveling so much
He was still angry that she couldn't understand
So he left without kissing her cheek good-bye
He boarded that fateful flight, which took off soon after
And as it crashed,
He died with an image of his wife in his heart,
And the regret that he would never kiss her rosy cheek again in this life.
Here today, gone tomorrow.
Live every day as though it is your last.
With the tragedy on my mind,
I at last understand the true meanings of these common clichés.
Like the first domino falling
The falling of the World Trade Center
Will set off a new chain of events.
The sight of the two towers falling
Over and over it played on the news
A sight that cannot be forgotten
As it marks a significant point in our history
It's just one part of the experiences that makes us who we are today.
How can one find beauty
In something so catastrophic?
But look at the way it pulled the country together
There is a certain beauty in the way
We have bonded together,
Instead of pulling further apart in this time of need.
Why do we dwell on the past?
We will never forget the events of the past Tuesday,
But we need to look towards the future
And live the life that goes on, instead of looking back.
To be crushed inside the building
Or to jump out the window?
Either way he's going to die
All that's left is to pray
And make peace with his Maker.
A dark, crimson haze had fallen over America
Like the blood flowing from the wounds of the dead
And for the blood lost
Blood has been demanded
Find the perpetrators. Bring them to justice.
And protect the American dream for everyone.
Within the tranquil pond,
Dwells an insignificant frog,
Slumbering upon its lily pad,
It is stirred from dreamland,
By the descending rain.
Deep within a secret subterranean lair,
An earthworm seeks sanctuary,
Abruptly it is submerged like a Russian submarine,
As the Earthworm sluggishly crawls to the surface,
A set of muddy feet decimates it immediately.
Little Candice dances,
To the symphony of the rain,
The musical beat drums along the ground,
Only to be interrupted,
By the feeling of blood and innards,
Of an insignificant earthworm.
A pine tree captured by fire,
Suffocates in the heat,
But the raging flames subside,
Battling for the losing team,
As it slowly smokes away,
The fire curses at the rain.
The filthy aged old man,
Brooding on a rickety stool,
From within the dark gulag,
Watches the floating rain,
And worries about his granddaughter.
As Mother Earth assembles the rest of her tears,
And Father Time marches forward,
The aged old man counts another rainy day,
The pine tree soaks in relief,
Little Candice moseys toward the cottage,
The decimated earthworm is swept away by the wind,
And the awakened frog drifts to sleep.
Ten Ways Of Looking at a CandleMichelle V.
The cat's eyes watched
as the wax slipped down the edge of the candle,
and fell to the floor.
And the light from the oil
sustained them for eight long days.
The old man's gray hair fell over his forehead,
as the wind began to blow again.
With the wind, the candle light flickered
before burning out
and leaving the room with an eerie calm.
The Love that once burned in her soul,
the night he took his hand to her face.
The young mother
looked up at the Virgin Mary's figure,
before lighting the candle
for the child she had lost.
She struck the match,
and the flame burst forth.
Suddenly the wind blew it out,
before it could make it to the wick.
The flame within me,
had burnt out.
Fear shot down her spine,
as her candle blew out.
The flame jumped from the wick
onto the curtain.
The child ran outside,
as she slowly watched
her house go down in flames.
The glow of the flame,
shone brightly with the black moonless night.