Thursday, December 03, 2009

Cold-weather poetry

Michael Bérubé referred offhandedly (in this thread, I can't link to his comment) to Stevens's "The Snow Man" as "puzzling."
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.
Stevens is reflecting upon the inevitability of the "pathetic fallacy" for the imagination. Only a "snow man" could *not* imagine misery in the sound of the wind. Ultimately, the alleged fallacy rebounds upon the critic; a viewer without imagination is "nothing himself," and if he beholds nothing that isn't there, then there is nothing there. Cf. Nietzsche on the world as value-neutral without the philosopher (priest, poet) to create values.

He returns to this early statement of one of his great themes in a late poem that I like better, "The Plain Sense of Things":
After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as necessity requires.
Faced by brute facts "as if" there were no imagination possible in the face of unadorned, cold reality, the poet retrenches: "Yet the absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined." One's very sadness demonstrates that one is not, after all, merely an empty recorder of neutral facts. "Inevitability" is not in the landscape, but in the beholder. And I always like the image (perhaps my own imposition) of the poet as "a rat come out to see."


  1. Nice explication, and good to see "Plain Sense" trotted out, which I haven't sat down with in quite a while. I suspect that Berube's puzzlement has to do less with comprehending the poem as a whole that with semantically unraveling the last two lines. With three "nothing"s and a "not" between them, it's something of a linguistic hairpin turn for the reader. (Someone commented that this was frequently misread as "_the_ nothing that is not there", which alters the sense of the poem entirely.)

  2. Berube came back & said his puzzlement was re: whether it was supposed to be good to have a mind of winter or not. Rather than simply respond that Stevens (1) lived in Connecticut and (2) vacationed in Florida, I provided a brief version of the foregoing post.

  3. My point was simply that the meaning of "must" in line one is undecidable on its face (though, of course, one can look elsewhere in Stevens' oeuvre for plausible glosses on the poem). It's like saying "you can't put too much water in a nuclear reactor," and leaving your auditors unsure as to whether (a) it is impossible to put too much water in a nuclear reactor or (b) it is very dangerous to put too much water in a nuclear reactor. Here, either (a) you've got to be some kind of inhuman creature to regard the frost etc. and not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind (that's your reading) or (b) one must discipline oneself, Zen-like, in order to have a mind of winter that does not succumb to the pathetic fallacy, and thereby sees nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    And then there is the question of whether Donald Rumsfeld attained that Zen consciousness in his poem, "The Unknown."

    Now that that's clear, how can we tell the dancer from the dance? And should we be versed in country things?