Where poetry lighted
For decades Wallace Stevens walked miles to and from work, capturing timeless verse
A marker with a stanza from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" on the Wallace Stevens Walk. (Bill Regan for The Boston Globe)
Wan sunlight seeps through the high cirrus clouds that streak the gray sky. The mood is perfect for exploring the newly completed Wallace Stevens Walk, a 2.4-mile stroll between the poet's workplace on the cusp of downtown, and his former home in the city's West End. Thirteen knee-high, granite markers outline the route, each emblazoned with a verse of Stevens's poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
The opening stanza, etched in black on the first marker, tips the walker that regardless of the physical terrain, the poem's internal landscape bodes for some rough sledding.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
The marker sits on the edge of the lawn of Hartford Financial Services Group (a.k.a. The Hartford) at 690 Asylum Ave., where Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) worked for 39 years. Like images in a poem, the stone stands in counterpoint to the Greek Revival edifice. From this hill, the city's skyline bristles with glass towers. The poem's first conundrum dawns: What mountains?
Although Stevens won several coveted American literary prizes, the recognition arrived late in his life, and his fame didn't trickle far beyond literary circles. Scholars and poets are quick to say that few outside these niches have heard of Stevens.
Stevens wrote "Thirteen Ways" early in his career (1917), when he was influenced by Imagism, "an early trend in modernism that focused attention on the image itself," says John N. Serio, a professor of humanities at Clarkson University and editor of The Wallace Stevens Journal. Like his fellow modernist poets - notably E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams - Stevens experimented with form and language to reflect his multifaceted perceptions.
Language and images, Serio suggests, offer entry points into "Thirteen Ways": "This poem is a study in images. A reader should try to imagine each panel with all their might. What kinds of sensations occur? What kinds of feelings or thoughts? Let [the words] appeal to the senses, not the rational mind."
It's little wonder that the organization that created the Wallace Stevens Walk calls itself the Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens. The name riffs on the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, an informal group of Stevens's day, whose members, including the poet, met at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum to hear works by composers such as Ives, Satie, and Stravinsky.
The walk, conceived by the group's past president Dan Schnaidt about 10 years ago, not only traces Stevens's pedestrian commute (he never learned to drive), but also charts a journey of imagination. "Knowing that Stevens often composed his poetry while walking to and from work also entices the walker/reader to retrace his steps, to imagine him imagining," muses Serio.
The walk continues on the north side of Asylum Avenue, west of The Hartford:
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three
The blackbird whirled in the
It was a small part of the
The streetscape here combines old, residential-scale buildings and steel-and-glass structures of urban-renewal vintage. Sirens create a Dopplering whine. Trees thrust splayed, bony fingers toward the sky, roosts for many blackbirds. Or not.
"I have actually seen blackbirds on the route, particularly in fall," says Jim Finnegan, president of the society, who, like Stevens, is a published poet who works as an insurance executive. "They tend to come through in big groups, but they've migrated by now."
What exactly qualifies as a "blackbird" in these parts? "I think the bird Stevens had in mind was closer to the grackle, with that sort of fantail, not a crow. He would never have used a crow!" Finnegan says, laughing. The joke? "It's just that other writers have used crows a lot."
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
whistling Or just after.
At last, a blackbird - or a black bird - perches in a tree between stanzas IV and V. It takes flight, revealing itself to be a mere winged cliche.
Tires of passing cars crackle and splash on the pavement, audible inflections. Across the street, windows in a midcentury building catch murky reflections. "Asylum Hill was always a bustling thoroughfare, even in his day," says Christine Palm, a poet who teaches at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, and the society's immediate past president. "You can hear in some of his poems - especially 'Of Hartford in a Purple Light' - the echoes of what he saw: 'Look Master, see the river, the railroad, the cathedral,' all of which you can see from a rise on the walk."
The next two markers appear in front of the Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School:
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
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?
"He constantly changes his perspective, offering many ways of viewing a particular subject. More than anything, he tries to convey the experience of perception, the experience of feeling," Serio says. In case that helps.
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
Finnegan says that in the spring the group will install an explanatory plaque next to the first marker. Stones two through 13, however, will stand alone. He hopes that "of those confused souls" who encounter them, some will "go home and Google a few half-remembered words, and have an 'ah-hah' moment."
Meanwhile, in front of a brick mansion, the next marker hunkers like a dejected garden gnome:
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
Here the walk passes Elizabeth Park, a favorite Stevens haunt. "He loved the manicured nature you find in a city park, but of course he was fascinated by the destruction and decay there, too," Palm says.
Perhaps, in winter, he noted the old trees striping empty benches in shadows, the squirrels rustling in dry leaves, and pewter ice on the pond, trapping a vaporous ball of light.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
The words feel louder, more discordant, as the hard commercial edges of the street soften into residential lawns and hedges.
He rode over
Connecticut In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
This stone stands in a garden at the corner of Terry Road, marking a turn up Westerly Terrace, the home stretch. The bare eyes of black-eyed susans sway on their stalks.
And then, the spare, penultimate stanza:
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
At Thanksgiving, Finnegan and his wife stood here debating the meaning of the verse. Something about Heraclitus.
And here it all ends, at Stevens's former home, a Colonial Revival house at 118 Westerly Terrace. The last marker stands opposite, in a grassy median strip.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
An anticlimax? Who knows. But it is getting dark.
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at regan-brown.com.