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Black on Black / 13


BLACK ON BLACK/13 consists of a reading with slides of Wallace Stevens’s poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" followed by a slide choreography of Richard Brooks’s Chorale Variations for Two Horns and String Orchestra. The latter partakes of the poem’s gloomy dimensions and is likewise made up of thirteen sections. Beyond this, let the pairing of these two works stand as reflections of our feelings about the dizzying, often inexplicable happenings of the last fifty years.

BLACK ON BLACK/13 was presented on November 11, 2001, at The German Evangelical-Lutheran Church of St Paul in New York City as a featured work on our program titled American Dream / American Nightmare. The reader was, as he is here, Off-Broadway director Richard Edelman; the music was presented, as it will be here, from the CD Tonus Tomis (Capstone Records, CPS-8627) and performed by the Constanta Symphony Orchestra with Radu Ciorei conducting. My visuals, originally color slides that I made from digital images, have been adjusted for this web presentation.


The Poem

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

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

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.

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?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But l know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.


This poem, which first appeared in 1917 in a collection titled Others: An Anthology of the New Verse, 1 is commonly believed to be related to haiku both in form and spirit. While haiku’s distinctive three-line stanza of five, seven, and five syllables is nowhere to be found in it, three of the stanzas (1, 2, and 9) consist of three lines each, and in five of the other stanzas (5, 6, 7, 8, and 13), there are three-line sense units. 2 Further, in a number of the stanzas, a season of the year (kigo) is indicated—winter in stanzas 1, 6, and 13; autumn in stanza 3; and perhaps spring ("Flying in a green light) in stanza 10. Also, there seems to be a throwing together of unrelated images (renso) in stanzas 2 and 5, and possibly a zen-like leap (satori) in the last lines of stanza 10 ("Even the bawds of euphony/ Would cry out sharply").

Scholars have also called attention to a parallel between Stevens’s "ways of looking at" approach and paintings of views of the same subject, such as Mount Fuji, by Hiroshige and his imitators. But also to be taken into consideration in this respect is Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), which appeared in 1913 as the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu (known in English as Remembrance of Things Past), and his Le Côté de Guermantes (1920-1921); in other words, "ways of looking at" was in the air as an approach in the West during the World War I era. Indeed, Proust himself shifted perspective from "du côté de" (in the direction of) to "le côté de" (the side of). Also, possibly to be counted among contemporary "ways of looking at" was Samuel Butler’s novel, The Way of All Flesh (1903), which surveyed the lives and differing perspectives of four generations of the Pontifex family. One thing remains clear: in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," there are at least eight different views of "blackbird." In the title and stanza 4, reference is made to "a blackbird"; in stanza 1, to "the eye of the black bird" or "blackbird"; 3 in stanza 2, to "three blackbirds" in a tree; in stanzas 3, 7, 8, 9, 12, and 13 to "the blackbird"; in stanza 5, to "the blackbird whistling"; in stanza 6, to "the shadow of the blackbird"; in stanza 10, to "blackbirds flying"; and in stanza 11, to "blackbirds." Indeed, the various guises of "blackbird" seem to be a kind of verbal analogue to birds flitting around in a tree.

But Stevens’s survey of "ways of looking at" does not stop there; different points of view are also presented during the course of the poem. There is the introspective "I" of stanzas 2, 5, and 8 ("I was of three minds"; "I do not know which to prefer"; "I know noble accents"). There is an understood "I" uttering an opinion in stanza 4 ("A man and a woman / Are one") and exhorting the "thin men of Haddam" in stanza 7. Further, stanzas 3, 6, 9, 10, 12, and 13 end with first-person-like observations or conjectures: "It was a small part of the pantomime"; "The mood / Traced in the shadow / An indecipherable cause"; "It marked the edge / Of one of many circles"; "Even the bawds of euphony would cry out sharply"; "The blackbird must be flying"; "The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs." In stanza 11, there is an inexplicable shift to the third person ("He rode over Connecticut"), with no indication as to who is being referred to. Could Stevens perhaps have signaled these shifts in point of view by the moving "eye" [sic] of the black bird (or blackbird) in stanza 1?

Also to be found in the poem are different forms of exposition. In stanzas 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and 11, there is straight description, and in stanzas 10, 12, and 13, such descriptions are followed by a conjecture or prediction ("Even the bawds of euphony / Would cry out sharply"; "The blackbird must be flying"; "It was snowing / And it was going to snow"). Seeming statements of fact or opinion reminiscent of mathematical equations occur in stanzas 4, 5, and 8, and in stanza 7, there is an exhortation.

These sudden and sometimes inexplicable shifts in point of view and rhetorical strategy seem odd when considered in isolation. However, when looked at in the context of the often playful climate of the absurd in the arts during the World War I era, they are anything but that. Coming to mind in particular in this respect are the witty non sequiturs of T. S. Eliot’s "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which was published in the same year as "Thirteen Ways," and Gertrude Stein’s departure into fragmentation and abstraction in Tender Buttons (1914). In the other arts, one might mention the intersecting planes of Cubism, the multiple views-in-one of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912), and Schönberg’s experiments with the voice in Pierrot Lunaire (1912). This absurdist trend in the arts was to continue after the war in such works as Sir William Walton’s Façade with text by Dame Edith Sitwell (1922), and in movements like Dada (1919-1924).

Given this cultural milieu, Wallace Stevens’s "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" deserves a closer examination along lines that have heretofore been neglected—to begin with, of the number of occasions in which the numbers 1 and 3 occur in the poem. As stated above, there are three stanzas consisting of three lines each and five other stanzas with three-line sense units. As also noted, three of the seasons are very likely indicated during the course of the poem, there are three different winter settings, and the introspective "I" appears in three stanzas.

But this is not all; a closer scrutiny reveals that there are quite a few other instances of the number 3 in the poem and at times of the number 1 in connection with the 3. In stanza 2, the "I," a 1, is of "three minds"—i.e., 1 = 3. In stanza 4, "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one"—i.e., 3 = 1. In stanza 1, "twenty snowy mountains" + a "black bird" (or "blackbird") = 21, which is divisible by 3. Further, "I know" and "It was" occur three times each in stanzas 8 and 13, respectively. Finally, there is a curious one-and-three pattern in many of the line-endings—i.e., there are an unusually large number of lines terminating in a three-syllable unit whose first syllable, as it falls on its line, is strong or heavy: "moving thing," "like a tree," "autumn winds," "pantomime," "to and fro," "golden birds," "is involved," "what I know," "out of sight," "marked the edge," "euphony," "afternoon," "cedar-limbs." The first two words of the title of the poem seem to anticipate this: Thirteen Ways.

Also deserving of closer scrutiny are the occurrences of the color black in the poem. There is a direct association of black with death in the exhortation to the thin men of Haddam in stanza 7 ("Do you not see how the blackbird / Walks around the feet / Of the women about you?"). Perhaps death is implied in the description in stanza 6 ("The shadow of the blackbird crossed it to and fro") and in the life cycle that begins with the spring thaw ("The river is moving") in stanza 12, and very likely death underlies the conclusions in stanzas 4, 8, 10, and 11 ("A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one"; "But I know, too, / that the blackbird is involved / In what I know"; "At the sight of blackbirds / Flying in a green light, / Even the bawds of euphony / Would cry out sharply"; "Once, a fear pierced him / In that he mistook / The shadow of his equipage / For blackbirds"). But on all of these occasions except for the two involving shadows (stanzas 6 and 11), death via black seems to be represented as a natural occurrence or, if you will, a part of process, and only once or twice (with respect to the mysterious rider in the coach in stanza 11 and possibly to the "bawds of euphony" in stanza 10) does death via black seem to have a negative connotation. Elsewhere in the poem, black seems to have nothing to do with death: "The only moving thing / Was the eye of the black bird" (or "blackbird"); "The blackbird whistling/ Or just after"; "It marked the edge/ Of one of many circles"; "The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying." And on some occasions, it is associated with something colorful, particularly green: "Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds"; "The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime"; "The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs."

What Stevens seems to have done, then, within the space of the poem’s fifty-four lines (which number is divisible by 3 three times), is to present an exploration or, if you will, a "deconstruction" of the concepts of "thirteen" and "black," which until recently have had largely irrational negative connotations in traditional Western culture, and he did this seemingly with a random or impressionistic hand. One might think of Stevens here as having been a poet and philosopher with sketch pad and metronome—and calculator.


1 (NY: Knopf), edited by Alfred Kreymborg, and it featured works by such future luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, and William Carlos Williams, plus a dozen others, including Kreymborg, who have fallen by the wayside, or like Maxwell Bodenheim, who were to come to public attention in another way.

2 Stevens’s use of set numbers here is reminiscent of Marianne Moore’s syllabic poems, where the corresponding lines of each stanza contain the same number of syllables. While they did not meet until many years later, Moore was also published in Others in the second decade of the century, and they must have been familiar with one another’s work as well as the syllable counting in French vers libre and the works of imitators in English like Pound, Amy Lowell, and T.S. Elliot.

3 In Others, the rendering is "blackbird," but in the first edition of Harmonium (NY: Knopf, 1923), this was somehow changed to "black bird." Stevens corrected this to "blackbird" in the next edition of Harmonium (1931), and that spelling (with concept) remained standard in the 1947 edition and in the edition of the collected poems and its successive re-printings that came out before his death. In their edition of 1997, which I have chosen to use as my copy-text, Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson based their texts of the poems in Harmonium on the first edition, hence the reading "black bird." I am indebted to Off-Broadway actor-director Richard Edelman for pointing out the alternate text to me. In his recitation of the poem for us, he chose to read it that way, as "black bird."

List of Works Consulted

Kreymborg, Alfred, ed. Others: An Anthology of
—. the New Verse
. NY: Knopf, 1917.
Stevens, Wallace. Harmonium. NY: Knopf, 1923.
—. Harmonium. NY: Knopf, 1931.
—. Harmonium. NY: Knopf, 1947.
—. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
—. NY: Knopf, 1954.
—. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose.
—. NY: The Library of America, 1997.

Reprinted from "Stevens's THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD," in The Explicator 62, no. 4 (Summer 2004): 217-221.


The Music

According to the composer, Chorale Variations breaks down into the following sections:

1. Introduction (for tutti strings, using intervals of seconds and sevenths)

2. Chorale 1 (for two solo horns)

3. String variation 1 in intervals of fourths and fifths (for quintet)

4. Horn variation 1 in unisons and octaves (for two solo horns)

5. Interlude 1, Chorale 2 (for two horns, accompanied by tutti strings)

6. Horn variation 2 (in steps for two solo horns) in combination with string variation 2 (in intervals of thirds for quintet)

7. Interlude 2 (beginning with tutti strings and leading to "Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu dir," a Bach harmonization with additives by me, each phrase of which is punctuated by the two horns)

8. Horn variation 3 (in intervals of thirds, vivace, for two solo horns)

9. String variation 3 (in steps for quintet)

10. Chorale 2 (for two horns accompanied by string quintet, with a big crescendo leading to Interlude 3)

11. Interlude 3 (for tutti strings)

12. Horn variation 4 (in intervals of fourths and fifths for two solo horns)

13. String variation 4 (in unisons and octaves for quintet, with Chorale 2 for two horns)

Regarding this work, Mr. Brooks went on to say:

I originally wrote the horn parts as a duet for two students here at Nassau Community College way back in the mid-70s, but they never played it, and in fact no one ever has. After finishing my PhD, there was a burst of composing from 1980 to 1982, and during that period, I got the idea of recasting the horn duet and adding strings. The horn parts are exactly the same as they were in the original, except that each phrase is separated by the newly added string music.

The music is based on a twelve-tone row derived from a hexachord (six notes) that uses successively larger (or smaller) intervals; you can hear this effect most clearly in the opening Chorale statement of the horns, first straight ahead and then inverted. Each variation of the original duet focuses on each of the intervals in succession, hence the designations "in unisons," "in thirds," etc. When I added the string music, I decided to use the same conceit but to do it backwards, i.e., working back from larger intervals to smaller ones. Thus the horns progress from the unison to the fourths and fifths, and the quintet starts with the fourths and fifths and progresses to the unison at the very end. (The opening uses seconds and sevenths, and was an afterthought.) In a sense, then, the horns and string quintet each project this "wedge" gesture in a kind of overlapping manner. The Interludes develop the interval patterns in other ways as a contrast.

At some point in the compositional process, I began to hear the Bach Chorale "Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu dir" and decided to make it the central section of the composition and to link it to the other materials, which I did by two methods. Each phrase is "punctuated" by horn figures related to the other material (my Chorale), and the string quintet players grab hold of certain pitches that are related to the tone row and "extract" them, so to speak.

On the surface, this work is rather abstract, but it can be understood on a deeper symbolic level too. I am not a religious person, but to me there is something very compelling about the notion of "crying out from deepest need," which I think is what art is all about. Much of this piece is about conflict and tension, a reflection, perhaps, of the turmoil going on around me in the world and my need to make sense of it all. I wanted the ending to create a sense of acceptance and serenity that I felt could be achieved without recourse to traditional religion, which to my way of thinking has been a dismal failure, with the possible exception of Buddhism.

A final note: originally, the parts for horn and string quintet were written using proportional notation, which required the performers to do a lot of improvising. After a couple of performances that I didn't care for, I decided to redo it in traditional notation.


Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, as the second of five children of attorney Garrett Stevens and his wife, Margaretha (neé Zeller), both of Dutch-German descent, Stevens went to school locally and then spent several years at Harvard as a special student. His first published verse appeared in the Harvard Advocate.

In the first years of the century he attended New York Law School and was admitted to the New York bar in 1904. After practicing law for several years, he went on to a bonding firm, and then in 1916 he became a specialist in investment banking with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where over a period of years he rose through the ranks to vice-president.

In 1909, after a five-year courtship, Stevens married Elsie Moll, who was also from Reading and so beautiful that she became the model for the Liberty-head dime and half-dollar. One child, a daughter Holly, was born to them in 1924.

In 1923, Harmonium, his first book of poems, appeared, and then after a hiatus, five more in fairly quick succession: Ideas of Order (1935), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), Parts of a World (1942), Transport to Summer (1947), and The Auroras of Autumn (1950). Collected Poems followed in 1954.

Recognition came late, toward the end of his life, with a series of prestigious awards, including the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (1950), the National Book Award (1951), and the Pulitzer Prize (1955). With a strong affinity for music and art, and a preoccupation with the nature of reality and the important role of imagination in our lives, Stevens is only now being recognized as a unique voice in twentieth-century American poetry.

Stevens’s poetry can be great fun for both young and old, often teasing the mind and sensibility without end, as in the following from "Peter Quince at the Clavier":

Beauty is momentary in the mind,
The fitful tracing of a portal,
But in the flesh it is immortal.

Among his best known poems, besides this work and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," are "Anecdote of the Jar," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," "Sunday Morning," "The Idea of Order at Key West," and "The Man with the Blue Guitar," all of which can be found in standard anthologies.


Richard Brooks (b. 1942)

Born in Upstate New York as the eldest of eight children, Richard Brooks grew up in West Windsor, a rural community outside of Binghamton. As a small boy, he became fascinated by music lines and notes and would sit for hours drawing them; in the sixth grade, he started taking viola lessons because the school offered them without charge "to get kids to play some newly acquired instruments." He began composing seriously while in Windsor High School; his first mature work, a mass in B minor, dates from his senior year there.

Mr. Brooks earned a BS in Music Education at SUNY-Potsdam, where he was required to devote a considerable amount of time to perfecting his technique on the viola. Following graduation, he began playing viola with the Binghamton Symphony Orchestra and the Tri-Cities Opera Orchestra, and after a stint of teaching music in the local public schools, he went on to SUNY-Binghamton on full fellowship to take an MA in Music Composition. In 1971, Mr. Brooks came to New York City to "break into an expanded musical environment." In 1981, he earned a PhD in Composition at New York University.

To date, Mr. Brooks has sixty works to his credit. These include Moby Dick, a full-length opera, and The Wishing Tree and Rapunzel, two operas for young people, which were composed on commission; the latter was performed by the Cincinatti Opera Company in March, 2002, to critical acclaim and is now being considered by several other major opera companies. Among the highlights of his instrumental works are the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano and the Fantasy-Impromptu for piano, both of which he wrote with an NEA grant for composition; the Quintet for Oboe and Strings, which was commissioned by the Music Teachers Association of New York State; and the orchestral work Landscape...with Grace. Over the last several years the chamber works and excerpts from the operas have been regularly performed. His commissions from The Lark Ascending include preludes and a postlude for organ to our dramatic reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in February, 2001, which was performed by Richard Erickson, and the same to our reading of Samson Agonistes to be performed by violist Louise Schulman and lutenist William Zito this coming April 2 at the CUNY Graduate Center. Mr. Brooks has another full-length opera titled Robert and Hal, a gay love story set in late Victorian London and Paris, with a libretto by Marcia Elder, that will be receiving a workshop production from us on April 15 at the German Evangelical-Lutheran Church of St Paul in New York City.

Mr. Brooks numbers among his favorite composers Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Schönberg, and Bartok because, as he puts it, "they were all concerned with revealing the soul within a controlled musical structure"; to Mr. Brooks, "Emotional truthfulness wedded to disciplined structure equals great art." On the other hand, he also "loves a good tune, and all of the aforenamed knew how to be lyrical without being slurpy."

As for where he stands musically, he confided to us that he used to identify closely with twelve-tone technique and dabbled in serialism, but now he "just tries to write something beautiful using whatever means or techniques seem right." In short, he rejects no "school" but refuses to be a slave to any of them.


The Slides

As I have often said, my slides are intended to accompany a text, never to stand alone, and my strategy is generally to complement a text with visuals rather than illustrate it.

There are thirteen slides in all for the poem, one for each stanza. All are composites that I created in Adobe Photoshop, and these are generally based on photographs of mine; indeed, all of the slides include at least one photograph by me. In the slides for stanzas 2, 5, and 8, when the "I" is mentioned, I included a photo of the poet in the design, and I put him in the coach in stanza 11. The coach and rider in that same slide I took from an old print in the Picture Collection of the New York Public Library, and the map from another. The lovers in the slide for stanza 4 come from a copy of a Japanese print, the dancer in the slide for stanza 3 derives from yet another old print, both found in the same collection.

I photographed the blackbirds for the most part in Flagler Beach, FL, and the backgrounds of the slides for stanzas 2, 5, 9, and 12 in Florida swamplands around Gainesville, FL. The two people in the slide for stanza 7 I caught at a Revoutionary War reenactment in Kingston, NY. The autumn scene in the slide for stanza 3 is of Lake Switzerland in Fleischmanns, NY; the mountains in the slide for stanza 1 and the tree in that for 13 are constructs that I created digitally from a single entity in a dictionary or encyclopedia.

Nancy Bogen


Special thanks to the Music Division of NYSCA
for making the slide choreography
of Richard Brooks's Chorale Variations possible.