Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A stretch of river XLIII: Wind and Wallace Stevens

This was going to be about the wind that Scruffy and I experienced and of the various roarings beneath the wind--traffic, airplanes, cooling units--and the indefinable Something that I could hear that was framing all this noise and motion. But as it happens, today is Wallace Stevens' birthday (thanks, Mr. Keillor), and Stevens was the sort of poet for whom wind is an important image. So: a favorite Stevens poem of mine in which wind figures prominently. (And a promise of a more substantial post soon.)

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.


R. Sherman said...

I heard a story once that some admirer showed up at Stevens house in Connecticut looking for "the famous poet." His response?

"I'm sorry. No poets live here."

I don't know if the story's true, but it ought to be.


Pam said...

What a wonderful poem.

We, too, had a windy day along our coastline - acorns are flying everywhere.

Great story in the comment above.

Educator-To-Be said...

A very, very beautiful poem!

Thank you.


Winston said...

When you have a moment, help me understand what Stevens meant with that last verse. My mind is having difficulty wrapping all the way around it and coming out the same place each time.

John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for stopping by and commenting.

Randall, I don't know that story, but it does fit with other things I know about Stevens. He turned down professorships at Schools You've Heard Of because he thought his job at the Hartford gave him a kind of balance--that kind of stuff. He definitely wasn't a chest-thumper (see: Hemingway).

Pam and Amy, this wasn't the first Stevens poem I ever read, but it and "The Idea of Order at Key West" (an absolute must-read) were the first where I began to get a vague sense of what Stevens is doing, and I seem vaguely to recall feeling inside me something akin to the earth's moving or the planets aligning or something big and momentous like that--and not just regarding his poetry, either. You know, nothing special.

Winston, I'll give it a shot. I think it's important first of all to note that the entire poem is a single sentence--thus, some crucial information for the final stanza appears, for me, anyway, at the poem's near-exact center: "and not to think." "Thinking," in this poem, intrudes on the listener's goal (assuming it's indeed his goal) of seeing this scene as it is and not framed in personal, or even human, terms. "Misery," for example, is the product of "thinking"--this scene, on its own terms, isn't "miserable." As Stuart Smalley would say, "That's just thinking thinking." So, then: to reach that point--"not to think"--the listener becomes "nothing himself": pure, a-interpretive perception, an absence of awareness of the self. What Emerson tries to convey, in his essay "Nature," through his image of the transparent eyeball is, I think, something like what Stevens is after here.

I hope that helps.