For this week’s poem, we’re coming back to Wallace Stevens, with one his most famous poems, “The Snow Man”. If you’ve read any Wallace Stevens, it’s probably this early poem.
John Serio writes that Stevens’ “most distinctive achievement” is this:
In an age of disbelief or, what might be worse, one of indifference to questions of belief, Stevens adds a metaphysical dimension. In doing so, he does not imply anything religious, yet goes beyond humanism. “The chief defect of humanism,” he writes, “is that it concerns human beings. Between humanism and something else, it might be possible to create an acceptable fiction.”… Poetry is supreme because it shifts our orientation from a traditional subject of belief, such as God, to its source – the creative, ever changing, infinitely renewable process of constructing a credible truth.1
The “renewable process of constructing a credible truth” sounds much like Thomas Kuhn’s description of the scientific process. Much of Stevens’ poetry tackles questions about how we construct our mental representations of reality.
This poem consists of a single, enigmatic sentence, packed with striking imagery, that explores what it takes to be a completely detached observer of the world, one without associations of memory or emotion evoked by the stark winter scenery. The answer, maybe, is that you’ve got to be a snow man, with “a mind of winter” and “have been cold a long time” to behold the paradoxical “nothing that is.” Perhaps if we become “nothing”, completely detaching ourselves from our observations, what we end up seeing is nothing.
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.
1. John N. Serio, ed. Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems (2011), xvi