Wallace Stevens and the Listicle

photo (5) (3)

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday morning, and as usual there were several listicle links posted by friends. If you don’t know what a listicle is, you haven’t spent much time on social media lately, have you? They infest Facebook and Twitter like lice on the heads of gradeschool kids, and there’s no nit comb for them either. I try not to click on a listicle, because it simply leads to more feckless clicking. Listicles tend to be click traps, constructed so the user must click each enumerated bit of, say, Ten Totally Ruthless Habits of Corporate Psychopaths, or 27 Methods of Online Begging, or The Top Five Brazilian Hamster Stomping Sites, and thousands and thousands and thousands of such seductive time wasters. Buzzfeed, for an instance, seems to be constructed almost entirely of listicles. I am tired of listicles. It’s a lazy way to pad out the “content” and string out a measely meme. But as I drank my morning coffee and contemplated defriending a serial fourth poster of thrice posted listicles, I thought of Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. This poem is a listicle, or a precursor to the listicle:

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 women 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.

I have a well worn 1931 edition of Stevens’ Harmonium, an old library book last checked out “AUG 14 1972,” rebound in red by “Dieter Binds Better Denver Colo,” overdue fine 2 cents per day. I took it down from the shelf, flipped through it, smelling the old paper. Thirteen Ways starts on page 123. Stevens numbers the stanzas in several poems, in Roman numerals. The Apostrophe to Vincentine is a IV stanza listicle, for example. The healing mirth of this rediscovery of Stevens as Ur-listicle maker has allowed me to forgive all you Facebook and Twitter peeps your listicles, and the fourth poster of the thrice posted was sparred oblivion. Selah.

Thirteen Ways Harmonium

I feel a strong kinship to Wallace Stevens in the way he goes about his work. Stevens was a master of the kind of prosody I want to master if I can. As an apprentice to the craft, one learns by imitation of one’s betters; I wrote the following pastiche in 1977, at age nineteen:

Thirteen Ways of Contradicting Wallace Stevens
1
Among a billion moving blades of grass
in the wind on the plain
the only still thing
was the eye of the blackbird.

2
My mind was empty
like the gray, dung streaked branches
of a dead tree
which holds an empty blackbird’s nest.

3
The autumn leaves scuttled past a dead blackbird.
It was all of a hymn.

4
A man and a woman
are not.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
did not.

5
I know which to prefer:
The terror
of silent innuendo
just after
the blackbird stops whistling.

6
Blackbirds filled the long window
The light and warmth of the room
crossed it in a black glitter of eyes.
Hunger
pressed against the glass
shivering in the light.

7
O women of Haddam
look up from your feet!
See how the golden light
of imaginary birds
shines in your men’s eyes,
in their thin faces.

8
I know barbaric accents,
listen for faint slurred rhythms.
I do not know
whether the blackbird is involved
in what I hear.

9
Where the blackbird first flew into sight,
it marked a point, one edge
of an infinite line.

10
At the cry of blackbirds
high in a moonless night
all the psalters of cacophony
would be erased.
a
11
I carried my canoe
to the mud swirl of an Oklahoma river.
Joy swept me up
when I took
the wind on the water
for blackbirds.
a
12
The pond is still.
A blackbird is dying.
a
13
It was a cold light all morning.
The ground was frozen
and the sky was clear.
The last blackbird had flown
out of sight.
a
How many hits, do you think, would Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, or my contradiction of it, get if posted on Buzzfeed as a listicle? I would certainly read more listicles if “content-providers” wrote like Wallace Stevens. Anyone interested in cut-up poems made of listicles?
a
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2 responses to “Wallace Stevens and the Listicle

  1. I am little interested in a poem composed of cut-up testicles, but I do appreciate Stevens’ composure and perspicuity of his poem (reminds me of some of Charles Reznikoff’s). Your perceptiveness, image and pattern at nineteen are purer than your subsequent writing, but then we do get distracted as we grow older. You, my friend, have graced us with your willingness to see and say for a very long time, and we are thankful for you. Thanks giving is appropriate and Thanksgiving is a good time to do it.

    Be well.

    Nathan

  2. Pingback: November Soul | Dr. Omed's Tent Show Revival

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