Thirteen Ways of Talking to a Blackbird

These days it’s unfashionable for a poet to reveal sources or offer a gloss on intentions, but for the work gathered in this chapbook sources and a kind of intention are more than covertly relevant, so perhaps a comment might be allowed.

Across the tracks on the Critical Work side of this site I mention the difference between treating the page as a surface for composing writing, so that the poem becomes something like a painting for the reader to regard and instead imagining the page as a space for conveying measured speaking for the reader to (as if) hear.  Most of the most frequently taught American poems from the first half of the 20th century or so are compositions for us to regard.

This set of pieces began from a kind of “what if”:  What if, for example, Pound’s “metro experience” had derived from an aural rather than visual apprehension.  And this led to exploring other inversions and reversals.  What if one of the diners in “The Harlem Dancer” voiced that occasion?  What if that wheelbarrow in “The Red Wheelbarrow” were put back in an actual side yard and was part of a dramatic situation rather than aestheticized (beautifully) into the verbal equivalent of a Precisionist painting?  What if the figure on the other side of the wall in “Mending Wall” were a western rancher and the poem became his reflection?

At the time the set was in press, I wrote the following (unused) note for the publisher’s website page:

What if Wallace Stevens had imagined talking to a blackbird rather than looking at one, or if William Carlos Williams had pulled back from that red wheelbarrow to include the sideyard with the chickens within the frame, or if the “you” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” replied to “Let us go, then, you and I”? The poems in Thirteen Ways of Talking to a Blackbird explore various “what ifs,” re-visioning and re-hearing commonly taught American poems, partly in homage, partly in resistance, but above all in the belief that these poems are a living tradition—occasions for dialogue and re-imaginings, not a dead canon.

Back in my student days it was fashionable to read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, where Bloom argues that poets engage earlier poems and poets in order to push them aside.  I would like to think that the poems in Blackbird reflect a different impulse: to make familiar poems new again by placing them in a different room of the museum (a reframing?) and to draw on the power of familiar poems to imagine, as well, new poems.  In Bloom’s view, such a dialogue is necessarily a competition.  In my view it might be, instead, homage, reflection, and re-visioning, where an older poem’s power to catalyze a new poem further validates its canonical status and where the new poem, in turn and perhaps, draws attention back to the older poem reminding us why it has compelled us through so many re-readings and re-teachings.

Some of these poems were subsequently included in Poem’s Poems & Other Poems, a different gallery show.


It of course isn’t easy to write as elegantly as Williams or with an invention and lexical density the equivalent of Stevens, or with the deft political insight of Rich, but Tim Hunt does. Like the masters he pays homage to in this volume, Hunt offers, with a flawless ear and remarkable ingenuity, uncannily wrought worlds that are less revisions of American masterworks and more Hunt’s own ingeniously observed and important meditations on what it is to be “actually here” in a puzzle of memory and culture and family whose pieces are increasingly lost. – Gabe Gudding

Sly, witty, ironic, and satirical as well as impassioned and earnest, these sixteen poems take on large issues as well as familiarly canonical American poems. Because of their practical knowledge (how to fix a barbed-wire fence, how to kill a chicken) and their firm grip on popular culture (gas stations using Boraxo on their sinks, the difference between “Shee-it” and “Shih-it”), these poems side with reality, against narcissism. Hunt pokes and prods at the poetic tradition, wrestling against the autocratic Ezra Pound, for instance, or investigating what can seem like glibness in Frost. Along the way he mixes it up with figures as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Jasper Johns, John Ashbery and Gregory Corso, Wallace Stevens and Hank Williams. What a good way to respond to monuments of the magnificence of this American singing school! – David McAleavey

Tim Hunt is a poet of many voices.  In Thirteen Ways of Talking to a Blackbird, he reinterprets, from his own, singular point of view, a group of famous poems we all know. His work is quirky and original—sometimes lyrical, sometimes with the informality of everyday speech but always intense, moving and joyous. This book is: “. . . a tip-toed prance across / The high wire as the crowd gapes / In wonder at the tricks. . . .” – Susan Terris

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