Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: Wallace Stevens "The Snow Man"

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; 

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Linguist Jay Keyser, in a 2005 interview on NPR, called this poem "the best short poem in the English language, bar none."  I haven't read nearly enough poetry to know if I agree, but there's much to think about.  In class today, we talked about the consistent connection in Stevens' poetry between images of winter/cold and clarity of vision or stillness/calm.  The Snow Man can regard the snow-encrusted trees and the "junipers shagged with ice" because he is so used to the cold that he can ignore it, "not to think/Of any misery."

He can also see through the pathetic fallacy-- the idea that nature responds the way people do.  Under the influence of the pathetic fallacy, you might believe that there is misery in the sound of the wind, but the Snow Man sees through that.  Keyser says, "The poem is a recipe for seeing things as they really are. To do that, you must see the world the way the snow man does. The snow man is free of human biases. He knows that in winter the days aren't cold and miserable; you are. To see like him, you must constantly challenge your own assumptions."

The last three lines are what intrigue me, though.  There are three assertions of nothing-- the listener is "nothing himself," and in the last one, he beholds "the nothing that is."  In between, there is a double negative:  he "beholds/Nothing that is not there."  Why all the negatives?  It seems to assert that nothing is something.  I want to put a Buddhist spin on it.  In Buddhism, the great nothing isn't a void or a negation, it is what lies beyond the boundary of humdrum, ordinary human thought.  It is actually teeming with vitality, but if you try to name it, make it into something, it immediately ceases being nothing.

That is of course based on my rudimentary understanding of Buddhism.  I have no idea if Stevens knew the first thing about Buddhism.  There were other, entirely different opinions among the members of my class.  but I like this reading. :-)

1 comment:

  1. I think this is what makes going back to school, as an older student, so cool: "...other, entirely different opinions..." We learn so much more when we can appreciate that.