Offcourse Literary Journal

A Virtually True Account of How Wallace Stevens Wrote "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", by Miriam N. Kotzin.


Stevens sat at his desk at Hartford Accident and Indemnity, leaned back in his worn leather chair and rocked deliberately, listening to the comfortable, familiar sound of ancient springs bearing his considerable weight. He sighed. He did not know which he preferred, the sound of the springs or the silence that followed. He jotted a note on his yellow legal pad: "I do not know which to prefer," he wrote, "the springs creaking or just after." That's the ticket, he thought, a sly reference to Keats' Grecian Urn, his unheard music. Those Harvard years, well, even without the degree, he'd got something. But "springs creaking"? He'd leave it at that for now.

He swiveled towards the window. It was snowing, and, worse, from the looks of it, it was going to snow. He leaned back, folded his hands on his paunch and closed his eyes, conjuring a landscape. What landscape? Key West? Palm trees, sun glinting on cerulean seas? A rivulet of sweat stings his eye. Not Key West, then, today. No, today it must be snowing. A snowy landscape. A mountain perhaps? Yes. A mountain. A snowy mountain.

He leaned forward and wrote it down. "One snowy mountain." He would stay at his club for dinner instead of dealing with Elsie, who was always irritating, incessantly interrupting him when he was writing. Settled. He'd stay in town. Now content, expansive, he drew a line through "One" and wrote above it, "Twenty." "Twenty mountains?" Then, "A range of snowy mountains." Not idiomatic. Folly to count mountains, though. He imagined a solitary self counting mountains like sheep on a sleepless night. White sheep. White mountains. "The hills skip like lambs, the mountains like rams." That line's taken, but he was pleased to have thought of it, made counting mountains more plausible, though why must poetry be plausible? These documents on the desk, they¹re another thing altogether. He¹ll get to them soon enough. If mountains, then trees dark against the snow. If trees, then birds. What birds? He closed his eyes: a scarlet cardinal perched on a pine limb, and, while Stevens watched, silver letters materialized, sparkled, "Christmas Greetings." Ach! He changed pine to cedar. Even so the cardinal was impossible. What then? Chickadee? Ridiculous. Tufted titmouse? Worse.

He wanted a plain bird. No nonsense. Blackbird. Perfect. That's it, then. He scratched out "springs" and wrote "blackbird." Then he listened. His own breath —in and out— reminded him of the bellows he used at the dying flame of his hearth, a bit of a wheeze lately, his own tuneless whistle. Right! Whistle. "Blackbird whistling." He wrote, "I do not know which to prefer ....the blackbird whistling or just after." Incomplete, that. What would Keats have written? Surely that master of inflection and innuendo would have written something about beauty.

He turned to the stack of legal documents: "Haddam vs. The Hartford." "Nothing but trouble," he muttered, "the whole scrawny pack of them." The poem would have to wait.


Miriam N.Kotzin says:

As in commercials, "virtually" means "not at all."

I teach literature and creative writing at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, USA where I am Director of the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing. I also serve as advisor to Maya, the student literary magazine.

My poems "Sea Changes" and "Close the Door Softly on Your Way Out, Clark Kent" were nominated this year for a Pushcart Prize.

My poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of print publications, among them: The Iron Horse Literary Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, Boulevard (for which I am a contributing editor), The Mid-American Review, The Southern Humanities Review, Pulpsmith, Poesy, Cacaphony and Confrontation.

Online my poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Small Spiral Notebook, Drexel Online Journal, the Vocabula Review, Three Candles, Carnelian, the Poetry Super Highway, For, Word Riot, The Front Street Review, Open Wide, Segue, edificeWRECKED!, Shampoo, Eclectica, FRiGG, Flashquake, Circle Magazine, Branches, Plum Ruby Review, Gator Springs Gazette, Blaze, The Green Tricycle, Riverbabble, MAG: Muse Apprentice Guild, Mini Mag, Snow Monkey, Maverick Magazine, Poems Niederngasse, Facets, Cacophony, Thieves Jargon, nth position, Another Toronto Quarterly and Valparaiso Poetry Review.

My short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum, Carve, Slow Trains, Smoke Long Quarterly, Littoral, Pindeldyboz, Storied World, The Glut, Toasted Cheese, SaucyVox, HiNgE, The Beat, Yankee Pot Roast, Salome, edifice WRECKED, The Rose & Thorn, rumble, The Quarterly Staple, The Shore Magazine, Writers Bar, Southern Ocean Review, Dead Mule, Thieves Jargon and Word Riot.

I also write fiction collaboratively with Bill Turner. Our collaborative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Thieves Jargon, Somewhat, Monkeybicycle, The Beat, and Admit Two. Admit Two has also published an interview with us about our work.

Please visit Miriam Kotzin's website at



Comments? Tell us!

Back to Offcourse home page