The Poetry of Wallace Stevens
“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
― Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination
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.
What sort of mind is a "mind of winter"? This is just one of many questions raised upon reading this short poem, one that is nothing if not very deep and opaque, at least upon first reading. For someone from the northern part of the Midwest the idea of winter and snow is a familiar one, so this poem seems like it should be more simple than it appears. Perhaps that is because the poet, Wallace Stevens, whose image of the poet he describes thus:
"He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does be placing it in his imagination. . . The poet has his own meaning for reality," and he says this about poetry:
"It is an interdependence of imagination and reality as equals." (pp 25-27, The Necessary Angel)
Stevens's poem is modern in the sense that it is imbued with ambiguity. The reality of winter or snow or "the listener" of the final stanza is masqued by the metaphors and placement in the poem. In the short space of fifteen lines the poet takes the reader on a journey from (in) the mind that is seeing the trees and sun to a listener who is hearing "the sound of the wind", yet is reduced to, or left with, nothing by the final stanza.
"Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
One possibility is to look to Stevens the poet for some help in understanding what is happening. In his poem, "On the Way to the Bus", he describes a journalist confronting a snow scene as a "Transparent man in a translated world," and finding there "An understanding beyond journalism. A way of pronouncing the world inside of one's tongue". (pp 394-5, The Palm at the End of the Mind) This understanding beyond journalism can be read as imagination; an imagination that is able to behold nothing yet see something.
The ambiguity of "The Snow Man" is something that we can ponder with our own minds and imagine the many senses in which the world of winter, its sounds and sights, might merge with our own understanding of the world. What we may gain is a bit of poetic knowledge while sharing in the transcendence of the poetic experience.
The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1951.
The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1972 (1971).