Planes, (subway) trains, automobiles and World War I—A dramatic shift in sensibilities ocurred as a result of these factors of modern life.
Credit: Images courtesy of American Memory
Modernist poetry often is difficult for students to analyze and understand. A primary reason students feel a bit disoriented when reading a modernist poem is that the speaker himself is uncertain about his or her own ontological bearings. Indeed, the speaker of modernist poems characteristically wrestles with the fundamental question of “self,” often feeling fragmented and alienated from the world around him. In other words, a coherent speaker with a clear sense of himself/herself is hard to find in modernist poetry, often leaving students confused and “lost.”
This lesson prompts students to think about a poem’s speaker within the larger context of modernist poetry. First, students will review the role of the speaker in two poems of the Romanticism and Victorian periods before focusing on the differences in Wallace Stevens’ modernist “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Sonnet 43 from the Portuguese, “How Do I Love Thee?”
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Published, 1850
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Ask students the following questions:
II: Divided Self; Detached Speaker: The speaker does not have a unified sense of self, and the distinct “I” continually disappears throughout the poem, detaching himself to the point at which the poem’s language, not the speaker, takes center stage.
III: Powerless and Alienated: The blackbird has no clear power/agency; the wind, by contrast, whirls around the blackbird, creating a sense of futility to the blackbird’s existence. Additionally, the blackbird is but a “small part” of the silent motions/gestures of the landscape.
IV: Riddles: Here, the reader is called upon to decipher meaning from this “riddle” or language puzzle. Meaning is not handed to the reader easily and clearly; instead, he or she must play language games as well.
V: Playing with Language: The speaker describes the beauty of language and demonstrates his own playing with language in the last two lines.
VI: Desolate World: Even nature (icicles) is “barbaric.”
Ambiguity: There is ambiguity in “the mood,” which is both ”traced in the shadow” (hence, unclear) and explicitly “indecipherable.”
VII: Allusive: Reference to information outside the poem: “men of Haddam,” a town in Connecticut.
VIII: Analytical: Again, riddle-like language.
IX: Fragmentation: From here on out, the poem becomes a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes. It is up to the reader to piece together meaning from these disconnected clips.
X: Description is Secondary: Description takes a back seat to play with allusive language.
XI: Convoluted: Here, the references to blackbirds are becoming convoluted, demonstrating the speaker’s preference for internal musings rather than clear descriptions.
XII: Additional disconnected musings/non sequiturs.
XIII: Meaning through Montage: The poem ends with continued play with language, and the poems comes full circle to the blackbird in the snowy mountains. This ending positions the speaker as one who has only imagined the poem internally via language, as opposed to one who has ventured concretely in nature. The reader is left with more questions than answers and is called upon, like the speaker, to attempt to create meaning from the poem’s fragments. The question is, “Can language convey meaning after all?”
Assessment options include the following exercises:
1-2 class periods