Reading “The Snow Man,” by Wallace Stevens

Poet Wallace Stevens

Poet Wallace Stevens

The phenomenon of Pennsylvania-born Wallace Stevens gives a guy like me hope. There was a day when great writers had post-university careers outside of the literary and academic fields. William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and T.S. Eliot, a banker.  In this current literary climate where the expected track for a poet to take includes an MFA and a job teaching poetry somewhere, it’s encouraging for me to remember that some people managed to prove their worth, not with an impressive four line bio, but by doing the work, despite the fact that life didn’t make the prescribed career track feasible.

Stevens was expected to go to Harvard and be a lawyer like his father, and so he did, a lawyer, and insurance man, a company president eventually. But none of this changed the fact that he would eventually be considered one of the most important American poets in history.

Some of my favorite works of his include “Sunday Morning,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” All of these poems have stretched my mind through the form they took as well as the ideas they conveyed. All of these poems seem to have in common a certain questioning commentary about the way we perceive our world, our reality and perhaps even the role of art within it.

Today’s poem has been called by at least one commentator, “the best short poem in the English language.” You can click on the link in the last sentence to hear why, as well as to enjoy Jay Keyser’s astute reading of the piece for NPR. And because I agree with John Nooney that much can be learned by listening to multiple readings of the same work, another good reading from the Poetry Foundation of Chicago can be enjoyed here. And for the rock star of poetry readings, listen to Tom O’Bedlam of YouTube renown. In the related articles below one blogger experiments with various ways of reading the poem himself. Personally I don’t mind admitting that this excellent little piece had me for about twenty separate takes until I felt I had it right, and I’m still not sure.

There are several things about “The Snow Man” that intrigue me. It’s all one sentence, bending over five stanzas on hinges of “ands,” commas and one semi-colon. In fact when I first read this years ago, I misread the phrase, “nothing himself,” set off by commas in the next to last line of the poem. I felt there was something important I was missing. Catching my error this time around has finally made the poem click for me in a way I hadn’t expected. Funny how we often try to impose our own will on a piece of art, rather than listening to what it’s actually saying, experiencing what it is doing.

In fact that might be part of what Stevens is talking about, our perceptions of reality which are colored by our own imagination, not to mention the language we use to interpret and describe it. Some would argue that this poem in fact advocates a complete de-personalization of the world around us in order to see things “exactly as they are (see his poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar”).”

But is he truly arguing for the need to “have a mind of winter,” or is he simply stating that we do not have that? We are not, after all, snowmen. Might he be saying that we only know the world through our interpretation of it? That we make up our own meaning as we go? These are perhaps questions that he and the abstract Impressionists of his time want to trouble us with, but I don’t think we should be so quick to say that he was passing judgment on imagination.

After all, how could he write such a poem about “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” without it?

I should mention that this reading actually started as just my part of a collaboration with two other audio artists, and because of that you might soon see another version of this reading on The Dad Poet. And if not, it was at least a fun learning experience for me during a very cold and snowy winter here in my part of the world.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

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.

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19 thoughts on “Reading “The Snow Man,” by Wallace Stevens

  1. Wonderful! If you know Keats’ theories of ‘negative capability’ and the ‘chameleon poet’ I think those last three lines make perfect sense – the poet is nothing, searches for nothing and just IS – receptive of beauty and not searching for truth. Wallace Stevens (who I have never come across before and will now read more of -you are such a treasure, a poetic box of delights) seems to be taking on the character of winter. In the snow, listening to nothing, or becoming the wind, or how he imagines the wind to be, in that bare place – so Keatsian. It is my birthday today – thank you for this unintended but lovely present x

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    • Oh! Happy birthday my Keats-loving friend! I am so glad to have been a giver of presents! Love it when that happens. :) Especially serendipitously. Always tickled to know I’ve introduced you to someone new. He’s one of my American favorites. Not easy, but not intentionally a prick about it either. You’ll probably come across several of his that you recognize, but didn’t recall the poet’s name. I think you’ll like “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”
      Enjoy your day!

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    • To my mind your phrase “or how one imagines the wind to be” is key here. I don’t fully agree with Deborah and some of the others who say he is saying that fully stepping outside of ourselves is a “must,” for doesn’t one need imagination to do even that? As I said to Kristine, I haven’t read more than six or eight of his poems, and none of his essays, but it seems to me there is often this tension between what appears to be and what is. The world is more than our imaginations make it, or other than our imaginations make it, sure, but to me this poem seems to imply not how one must look at the world as in “should,” but that in order to see it as it is, as not the idea “About the Thing but the Thing Itself” we would have to be snow men.

      In order to do this, one must do that. But never should. I don’t think he says that ditching imagination is possible, and he seems to debate with himself (especially in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”) about whether or not it is a good thing.

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    • I have to weigh in again as I’m listening to this conversation develop. I don’t think I’m in disagreement with what you say about the importance of imagination, which WS, I agree, highly values. I guess where “the mind of winter” comes into play for me, is that where creativity (the imagination) arises for me–is when my mind is still, like in meditation, and things around me or inside me start speaking and I’m writing it all down as fast as it comes. I’m still there, I’m not in a trance, but I recognize the words and images seem to be coming from somewhere beyond me–me and not-me, at the same time. I don’t know how else to explain it. It may not work that way for others, but it’s the way I experience the writing process.

      I did see the link, David, and appreciate that. Thanks for letting me weigh in here.

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    • I understand what you are saying, but was it you British who started the phrase, “The proof is in the puddjng?” No matter what a poet says about her poetry, if the theory does not hold up in the poem, then it really is a mutenpoint, right? It may be bit old school to be “New School” and say the poem should hold up on its own, but there is a lot of truth to that.

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  2. The sea is just the sea…yes..W.S. was always searching to bring stuff back to the bare bones..unlike Keats.. whose TB fuelled passions of youth..(I mean ..to die at 26 !! ) ran hot and warm. Good reading David,,,tho’ I disagree with the ‘commenter’ who said this is the best short poem etc. Art is not a competition. There is no best prize. Just lots of very gifted people..and thank goodness for that !

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    • Aha Kittyb – I quite agree that Keats’ sensuousness is at odds with W.S but not the principles he worked to. ‘If poetry does not come as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all…..’ And he was 25 when he died – I am a Keats geek :-) And I shall now shut up as Wallace Stevens is as yet a mystery to me so I must read more and say less!

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    • I agree with you about the best poem comment, K. And thank you for the compliment on the reading. I haven’t read any of Stevens’ theory, only his poems, and I do think that he contradicts himself here just by writing the poem, if in fact he is saying that one “must” strip the world bare. I rather think he is writing evidence that unless we are snow men we cannot.

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  3. I fell in love with WS when I read “Ideas of Order at Key West.” He’s been a huge influence on my writing ever since. My recent blog post “Cultivating the Mind of Winter” speaks to that influence, which also features “The Snow Man.” I think Stevens was speaking to the negative capability, and of the poet’s need to “step barefoot into reality” as he wrote in one of his poems. Out of a mind of winter poetry or poetic writing blossoms. I put it this way in my post:

    “What we experience in the world, the world as we know it, is always to some degree a creation of our own imaginations, the objective world (reality) filtered through our subjective experience of it. And there’s beauty and mystery and grace it that.

    And yet, and yet . . . . There is too that “mind of winter” that Stevens also writes about. The sense that we can get at the thing in itself, without the cloud of imagination, the subjective, standing between it and us, as he writes about here in “The Snow Man.”

    I loved reading your thoughts on this. I too have found inspiration that an “insurance man” had the audacity to write poetry that continues to astound and inspire us. Your reading was wonderful too. I’m going to listen to the others now. Thanks for sharing.

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    • You’re welcome, Deborah. And thank you. Perhaps you didn’t notice yet that I did read your article. It’s posted there below mine int he “related articles” section.” :)

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    • Haha, yes, another five inches since four this morning! And more on the way mid-week. So yes, I thought it might be getting late in the season for this, but no. . . after all that cold and “misery in the sound of the wind” the last few weeks, I thought it the perfect time!
      Thank you, my friend!

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    • Thank you, dear! You too. I have to get back to catch up on your recent public reading adventures. January pretty much was lost to me, a bad cold followed by the flu. Lovely always to “see” you.

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    • I’m so sorry you were sick. I was, too, for all of January, even during the readings early in the month! (But the show must go on, right?) I’m finally on antibiotics and getting better. I hope you’re all mended by now? Your voice sounds great in the recordings.

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    • Yes, me too, cold first, then the flu. January is a blur. I didn’t have more than one live reading, and it was the neighborhood gang at the art gallery, so I was okay. But the work show went on until the flue kicked my legs out from under me and the doctor told me to stand down. :) There is much to be said for rest, fluids and Tylenol.
      I’m glad to hear you are getting better too, and thank you for your kind compliments on the recordings.

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  4. Skipping punctuation is never a good thing — unless, of course, you’re reading a poem, Merwin for example, who gave up using punctuation … then you can make it up as you go along. :-)

    Really nice reading, my friend . Good to hear your voice … feeling better has its advantages, huh?

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    • I recently heard someone say something that I thought was very insightful; if punctuation is used well, the reader uses it without noticing it. If not, the reader stumbles. Now in this case, I am not so sure that it is Stevens poor use of punctuation so much as our being un-used to long sentences.

      I recall reading Tolkien as a teenager and realizing that some of his sentences go on beautifully for half a paragraph. But the internet is all a-buzz with making things short, uncomplicated and therefore “more readable.” I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, leaning toward not letting the concept of dumbing down our writing to fit trends.

      I’ve read that Hemmingway used to read his stories to the help staff, and make sure they could understand it all. But then again, prose does not usually have the structural devices that poetic form can have, and I think Stevens uses punctuation here as a structural form, and it’s brilliant so I can forgive him, and chide myself for my mistakes.

      Yes! It’s so much better to be well again. I don’t even remember much of January. What an awful start to 2014 that was. We decided to celebrate Chinese New Year as our new beginnings instead. Thank you, John, for your encouragement, always.

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