September 2023

What Is It About Blackbirds?

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Some genius whose name has been unjustly effaced by time penned a short poem in the boggy mists of 9th century Ireland. It has delighted readers and listeners ever since. It's about blackbirds and has been translated into English over the years by some heavy Hibernian hitters, including Seamus Heaney, but with all deference to Ireland's most recent Nobel laureate, no one touches Frank O'Connor's rendering:


    The Blackbird by Belfast Lough


    What little throat

    Has framed that note?

    What gold beak shot

    It far away?

    A blackbird on

    His leafy throne

    Tossed it alone

    Across the bay.


Ah! All the compact precision of a Basho haiku fitted to the crystalline musicality of a Mozart melody. And the barest use of adjectives, but what tenderness, what reassuring human goodness inferred in that anonymous poet's deployment of "little" and "leafy." It speaks well of our species that over a thousand years ago, amid the daily travails of life as it was—brief and hard, someone could muster such exquisitely joyous sensibilities to lavish on a blackbird!


In the next poem, we encounter a veritable catalogue of exquisite sensibilities lavished on those jet-plumed fliers and this time we know who wrote it. Wallace Stevens hailed from Reading, Pennsylvania. For three years, he attended Harvard, where he began writing, as well as developing an appreciation for aesthetics and philosophy. He was especially drawn to the virtues of Asian art. Stevens became an accomplished insurance lawyer, working most of his professional career for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. In his spare time, he wrote some of the greatest poetry in any language, including this well-known gem which blends his aforementioned interests . . . with blackbirds:


    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 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 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.


Every one of those stanzas is a self-contained poem. Stevens comes out of the gate with a 3-liner—very much a haiku, though not strictly so in terms of syllable count—to which Basho or the equally great Arakida Moritake would have nodded in delighted respect. But, to riff on #V, I do not which stanza to prefer (though #V is my favorite on many days!) As a poet, I've had this Stevens masterpiece in my kit-bag of memorized poems for a long time. With all its underlying philosophy, the poem arrests and startles—with pleasure, with epiphany—because of those blackbirds. His frequent parakeets and cockatoos just won't do. It's gotta be blackbirds.


Among Paul McCartney's many immortal compositions, "Blackbird" certainly flies high on the list. A gorgeous aspect is its simplicity; it originates in simplicity. As Ian Macdonald points out in Revolution in the Head, his magisterial analysis of every song by The Beatles in the order in which they were recorded: "Beyond the reach of electricity in the Maharishi's retreat at Rishikesh during the spring of 1968, The Beatles could use only their Martin D-28 acoustic guitars."


That dearth of instruments and recording facilities inspired several classics on The Beatles, commonly referred to as The White Album. When Paul returns to London, he records the song in six hours. Other than his voice and his deft, Folk-inspired guitar work, the song's only adornments are Paul's foot taps (EMI audio engineer Geoff Emerick attests that they were actually mic'd) and, as Macdonald writes, "a warbling blackbird from the Abbey Road effects library."


Something else, however, informed "Blackbird" as it took wing in McCartney's imagination. But first, here are the lyrics, even on their own a poem of formidable beauty:




    Blackbird singing in the dead of night

    Take these broken wings and learn to fly

    All your life

    You were only waiting for this moment to arise.


    Blackbird singing in the dead of night

    Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

    All your life

    You were only waiting for this moment to be free.


    Blackbird, fly,

    Blackbird, fly,

    Into the light of the dark black night.


    Blackbird, fly,

    Blackbird, fly,

    Into the light of the dark black night.


    Blackbird singing in the dead of night

    Take these broken wings and learn to fly

    All your life

    You were only waiting for this moment to arise.


    You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

    You were only waiting for this moment to arise.


Now consider that, as Macdonald notes, "for McCartney, the Blackbird was a metaphor for the civil rights struggle in America, the subject being a black woman." McCartney has said as much in several interviews over the years. It shows a social and political concern more often associated with the songs of his friend and bandmate, John Lennon. As he often does, McCartney takes a more open-ended approach to his subject-matter, aiming for the timeless as well as the timely.


So what is it about blackbirds? I think it's obvious.


Share This Page

View readers' comments in Letters to the Editor

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




September 2023

  Sections Cover · This Issue · inFocus · inView · inSight · Perspectives · Special Issues
  Columns Adler · Alenier · Alpaugh · Bettencourt · Jones · Luce · Marcott · Walsh 
  Information Masthead · Your Support · Prior Issues · Submissions · Archives · Books
  Connections Contact Us · Comments · Subscribe · Advertising · Privacy · Terms · Letters

|  Search Issue | Search Archives | Share Page |

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine
of Arts and Culture. Copyright © 2000-2023 Aviar-Dka Ltd – Aviar Media Llc.

Subscribe to our mail list for news and a monthly update of each new issue. It's Free!


 Email Address

        Please see our Privacy Policy regarding the security of your information.

Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine