Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird


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


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


The blackbird whirled in the autumn wind
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 inflexions
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


Icicles filled the 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 rythms;
But I 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.
Wallace Stevens

Thus, it might be true . . . that the style of a poem and the style of men are one.
Wallace Stevens "Two or Three Ideas"

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) worked for a short time as a journalist, completed his law degree and in 1934 became a Vice President at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He remained there until his death in spite of his increasing popularity and importance as one of the foremost writers of verse in American poetry.

Stevens's most notable poems, many of them dealing with the world of creative imagination in a world deprived of religious meaning include Le Monocle de Mon Oncle, The Emperor of Ice Cream, Sunday Morning, Anecdote of the Jar, Peter Quince at the Clavier and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

An ambiguous poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird depicts the narrator watching a blackbird through a window and how his mood changes along with each observation. His sensuous and elaborate imagery along elevated precise diction are reminiscence of William Carlos Williams with a bit of T S Eliot thrown in with the use of expressions of subtle philosophical themes creating a characteristic tone that is both lyrical and ironic. By taking blackbirds and contrasting them against thirteen ways to look at them the reader sees the bleakness and monotony of modern life with the richness of nature and of the aesthetic experiences but with a twist.

Focusing on the after images as aberrations, in fact all images are after, they behold for the reader a certain terror. "I do not know which to prefer," writes Wallace Stevens "The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / the blackbird whistling / or just after. Every image is an "afterthought" or "aftershock" of something that has already occurred. Like a modern impressionist painting with strokes of words Stevens work is a composite structure built of oblique meanings and surprising shifts that add up to an engaging portrait where symbol, and metaphor coexist. The verses are a journey from the physical to the metaphysical, a journey that is altogether poetic, technical, and philosophical. The poet examines his subjects with as few preconceptions as possible, taking familiar concepts and stripping away all associations until they become strange, producing ideas that are refreshing and new and straddles the ground between the intellect and the senses, leading the reader beyond the realm of theory and practice into the universe of the imagination, where "space" is experienced as something touched, seen, and thought. With this use of traditional Modernist experimental writing one scholar explains: "There is more poetic truth in this agile prose, these vivid, metaphorical descriptions and surprising juxtapositions than any amount of scholarly research could possibly unearth." Stevens solution is is to use multiple metaphors for God: masculine, feminine, non-sexual, and depersonalized. God has many names. If Wallace Stevens can write about "thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird," how many more ways must exist to envision the infinite and eternal God? The disorienting and revelatory shifts of focus in such a charming poem takes the romantic commitment to a specular order of attention, so that his poem has more than a trace of consistency. Emphasizing the geography or contour of the poem on the page, whether it be in monomorphic, polymorphic, or paratactic, the fulcrum in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is the word "see". Rhyme also serves a visual as well as aural effect.

Suggestive as Blackbirds may be, the theme of the poem is, "Pay attention to physical reality." What kinds of things are suitable to serve as units in a number? Clouds, ripples on the surface of a liquid, psychological states these things are usually too indefinite to count. How many psychological states did one experience yesterday? How can one objectively determine the answer? There are times which one can, for example, say that there are three clouds overhead. And, after all, this is not the Four Noble Truths, seven types of ambiguity, three theological virtues, or thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. Are the numbers that these sorts of things compose like Faith, Hope, and Charity form a triad in the way that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost do? Is Faith a thing in the same way that Father or Son is. The bafflement and uncertainty experienced when confronting these questions are reminders to the reader that the ancient conception of the numbers under consideration by the composer is not an exacting scientific concept. It is about nature after all.

The thin ascetic men of Haddam is chided by the poet for ignoring the good blackbirds and real women for golden phantasms. He remands the aristocrat who rides about Connecticut, of all places, in a glass coach as if thinking himself Prince Charming as inexcusable failure to exercise his intelligence. Steven's ends in a section with a tone that is straightforward and matter-of-factly sums it up. No matter what the reader does to interpret what Steven's has seen there remains the last image of one blackbird perched in the cedar tree awaiting the snowfall. The reader can smell the crisp cedar strongly sensed against the dry cold air of the impending weather. The tree is sharply in focus the air icier while the blackbird becomes a shadow.

Wallace Stevens is a poet who manifested an abiding interest in philosophy. His poems consistently display, in both their syntax and modulation of thought, philosophical parallels. Stevens' dominant mode of thought is phenomenological. This can be shown by analyzing parallels between phenomenological methodology and Stevens' poetry. Particularly three poems--"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1917), "The Snow Man" (1921), and "The Latest Freed Man" (1938)--embody, respectively, the poem as doing phenomenology,(a philosophical movement that describes the formal structure of the objects of awareness and of awareness itself in abstraction from any claims concerning existence ) the poem as a description of the phenomenological mind, and the poem as a portrait of the phenomenologist.

James A. Clark

For poetry ideas based on comparisons and contrasts, the very subjectiveness of interpretations James A. Clark writes about his book Wallace Stevens: A Portrait of the Artist as a Phenomenologist is an unintentional one of confusing modern poetry with philosophy, a common fault of literary criticism, even so, there are a tremendous variety of benefits to these critical interpretations.

Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip...

Because the revolution will not be televised...

The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal...
There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts...

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay...with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion...

The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolutions will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

Gil Scott-Heron

As the end of the sixties approached there was an intense shift in the struggle for equality as the fight for civil rights gave way to the demand for Black Power and Gil Scott-Heron surfaced in the mainstream music of the early 70s with albums such as What's Going On and There's A Riot Goin' On. One of the great unheralded voices in popular music just might be the man who composed the lyrics to the electrifying song, The Revolution Will Not be Televised. It debuted on the 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and its powerful poetic imagery along with the stunning power of his voice are timeless and chillingly relevant to any age.

With carefully crafted lyrics the songwriter creates contrasts between the irrelevance of television and the unrefined power of significant events. The words are very powerful to read but to get the full effect one has to listen to the piece. The awesome combination of soul, funk and verse made Scott-Heron one of the most intuitive political singers of the 70s and early 80s.

Born in Chicago his early years were spent between the mean streets of the Bronx and the South. His estranged father played for the Celtics and by the time he was nineteen he had published his first novel The Vulture. Essence magazine called it "a strong start for a writer with important things to say." He admired the work of the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and before he left his teen years behind he published one more book and a volume of poetry. It was Scott-Heron's forceful readings near the end of the 1960's that led to the very literate, frequently militant work of performances like The Last Poets. One biographer notes that songs like "Johannesburg, recorded years before most of the public had even heard about the tragedy of South African apartheid, combined jazzy backing tracks, Scott-Heron's authoritative talk-singing, and words that carried plenty of baggage without showing the strain. "

The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In four parts without commercial interruptions.

A volatile beat poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised conveyed the right tone of honest anger when it was released because Scott-Heron had tapped into the invisible revolution of lurking pop culture vultures, prepared to re package rebels into more-palatable versions. For example Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were produced for prime time TV beatniks in the persona of Maynard G. Krebs. From his straight-faced attacks on racism to his withering sarcasm of the Great Society and media nonsense - each line is awash with a contemptuous turn of phrase. Wrapped up in the political poetry was a new combination of social commentary and blues funk that has since become a socially relevant voice of today. While Motown records pre-packaged poor black singers from inner-city Detroit into desirable, marketable products, television had become the most effective control of the masses in history.

This was a true revolution imperceptible among the naked teens frolicking at Woodstock. The constant bombardment of media images changed the thought processes of Americans and following those images came the advertisers. Scott-Heron spoke passionately about blacks' inequality in the artistic industry and about their unrelenting invisibility within the consumer friendly repackaging. Tom Terrell writes in his linear notes for Evolution and Flashback: the Very Best of Gil Scott-Heron that his angry, rhythm-infused poetry was "avant-garde compared to what was going on in early 70s black pop (Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield)."

Scott-Heron confronted widespread fallacies of black America by accusing the white admen of stealing "black" catchphrases like "Right on, Tiger" and "power to the people" for their marketing schemes. He also criticized the American people for unconsciously tolerating the reality that corporate America sponsored the appeal of popular culture. He pointed out that a corporate controlled network television could not embrace the waves of social, cultural and political change. His verses warned of a looming "social apocalypse borne of centuries of injustice and pent-up frustrations that can no longer be dulled, contained, or diminished by the drugs of capitalism."

Scott-Heron proclaimed that the revolution would be in the gutters and on the streets. His verses are directed at black, white and corporate America and it was a call to action. While the news was being broadcast by the biased television stations into the comforts of suburbia, the armchair politicos were blissfully unaware of the deteriorating inner-city conditions of the early 1970s.

Today Gil Scott-Heron remains a towering figure in black popular music. With a Master's degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins his forceful, no-nonsense street poetry motivated a legion of intelligent rappers while his engaging songwriting skills placed him square in the R&B charts later in his career. In 1972 he joined with Brian Jackson and formed the Midnight Band the same year Esther Philips covered of Scott-Heron's wrenching heroin-addiction tale Home Is Where the Hatred Is. In 1984 he collaborated with Bill Laswell on the anti-Reagan diatribe, Re-Ron and in spite of anti-drugs themes like The Bottle and Angel Dust, Scott-Heron still wages a long-term battle with substance abuse.

By merging Afro-American social politics with jazz and rhythm and blues Scott-Heron forged the missing link between the beat poets and jazzbos of the 50's and 60's and the rap--hip hop artists of the 90's. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised sparked its own revolt inspiring minorities to utilize the powerful rap medium as their forum for widespread political discussions and within a decade, Scott-Heron's rhythm poetry had melded into the popular culture through groups such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Silent for nearly ten years after the release Re-Ron, the proto-rapper revisited the recording music industry in the mid-'90s with a memo for the gangstas who had followed in his footsteps. His 1994 album Spirits began with Message to the Messengers and it was aimed squarely at the rappers whose sway, positive or negative, held deep meaning for the children of the 1990s. He urged them to take accountability in their art and in their community.

Capitalism learns how to sell anti-capitalism

Even though Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets proclaimed, "the revolution will not be televised," since then the revolution has been merchandised as a pre-packaged lifestyle. It's available at the local mall where $19.95 buys a black mask, a spray can and a protest sign. It comes in the form of access to a blog where one can write about the police brutality suffered while chained across Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. That "revolution" was, in fact, televised and commodified and can now be rented from Hollywood Video. The lyrics continue to be used and abused by the very agents mentioned and its message still rings loud and clear. Gil Scott-Heron's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised hit a raw nerve with street rhythms that foreshadowed Whitey on the Moon and Brother, yet today it has become not only extensively sampled, but undeservedly reduced to a cliché.


For a full text of lyric please visit here.

Gill Scott Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised:

Gil Scott-Heron

"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (Gil Scott-Heron) © 1971, 1988 Bienstock Publishing Company (ASCAP)

The Revolution Will Be No Re-Run, Brother - The Revolution Will Be Live