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A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: On Wallace Stevens’s “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.

While the voice here is certainly detached, the narrator’s use of the impersonal pronoun “one” casting the poem in a supposed greater objectivity, an objectivity familiar more to the sciences, to philosophy, in keeping with the poem’s epistemological inquiry, the tonal objectivity in stark contrast with its perspective, one indebted to Nietzschean perspectivism, which posits that the “thingness of a thing” is always mediated by vantage points, that what is knowable about an object is always altered by wherever one stands, thereby altering one’s understanding, that there is no absolute truth about objects; the “one” here in the poem standing not only for the writer but for anyone like the writer, the use of “one” here reflecting class as well, making me wonder how different the poem would have been had Stevens chosen to use the bossier “you,” or the far more personal “I”; that detached voice still making me wonder why he had detached himself in this way, that feeling forming a kind of attachment; wonder, also, at his use of the word “boughs,” which in this context, where the snow weighs the boughs down, also suggests its heterograph: “bows”; wonder at Stevens’s sober recognition of needing a mind in kismet with the winter in order not to fall prey to the miseries of cold, of ice, of the sad sounds of the season, those sounds welling up through Stevens’s interations of the word “sound”: “the sound of the wind,” “the sound of a few leaves,” and “the sound of the land”; while still evoking the silence of winter, the emptiness that somehow fills everything up, fills the mind with innumerable sad thoughts, paints it with the blues, reminding me of an ancient proverb about surrendering oneself to the inevitability of seasonal changes that I’d copied out, of which I turned my office upside down to quote here, but finally couldn’t find, making me sad, yet again; and then wonder about me, the me that is me, nothing myself, whether what I was looking for had fallen into some hole, some emptiness, some place devoid of meaning of anything other than whatever meaning I attributed to it.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

5 thoughts on “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: On Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”

  1. Nice work, John. You solve the “sentence” problem bravely — though if I were to quibble I’d say you could’ve addressed that itself, I mean the poem’s single-sentence rush, a gathering syntactical intensity like a blast of January wind; the end chaps our faces w/ sudden meaning & then howls away into new incomprehension.

    1. Thanks, John.
      Consider this an addendum:

      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.

      When recognized as a single sentence, this fact overtly revealed in my having set it as a single block of prose above, and also by my singling it out for scrutiny as a single sentence to begin with, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the poem’s density, a density created by its various cumulative devices; its use of infinitive phrases, i.e., “to regard”, “to behold”, “to think”; each of which emphasizes the theme of perception; as well as its many repetitions, especially the use of anaphora; the sentence’s very density demanding readers to slow down, to measure themselves, to reconsider the limits of their perceptual fields, their ever-diminishing attention spans, to both look and listen, and then, through that regard, that attention, that scrutiny, question notions of being and meaning.

  2. Lovely, John. I was walking today in woods like these and thinking of the winter that was to carve out absences in the very spaces I was treading. “The mind of winter” is the sort of thing I was trying to get at in my own post but didn’t have enough Stevens knowledge at my fingertips to connect–it seems that for Stevens there is a pushing of the figuration to its absolute limits, both anthropomorphically and then beyond it, often by absenting the human, to venture into the ontological.

    1. Thanks, Tim.

      I think that the forms of Stevens’s abstractions of whatever he is observing and describing manifest the tension that drives his investigations, that is, the dichotomy between reality and “fiction” (the word he often used to call the imagination). Strangely enough, at least for me, his doubts about what constitutes reality compel me to look inward, to see that both the fullness and absence found outside (all created, at least usually for Stevens, by language) may also be found inside.

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