The Real Versus the Imagined Life: “Nothing That is not There and the Nothing that is”

6 12 2012

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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.

Do you ever wonder how much of your world is real and how much of it is just a projection of your interpretation? Sure, we all know drama queens who thrive on drama of their own creation, but I mean all of us, even the least confrontational.

Is it possible to regard anything the way it actually is? For example, what do you see when you see a tree? Do you see a factual tree? Don’t we have to see it through the lens of our human experience? Do our aesthetics tell us that it is “pretty” or “ugly”? Do our experiences define the tree? We think of time spent in them or near them? Do we think of the passing seasons, perhaps? Do we look at trees in full bloom and feel in full bloom ourselves? Or maybe our personal beliefs help us define the tree? Our connotations are impossible to peel off the denotations of things.

However you define a tree, it is probably not an objective tree, it is only your interpretation of the tree; it is a tree as defined by your human drama.

We create and recreate things in our world to make our lives more understandable or more palatable. This is just the way we are. No one is saying it is good or bad.

It just is, like the tree just is.

Wallace Stevens’ short, but mind-blowingly dense poem “The Snow Man” explores some of these ideas.

This poem is one sentence divided up into a series of tercets, or three-lined stanzas. It is the type of poem that you have to read over and reinterpret several times before any meaning can be extracted. I loved this poem well before I understood it, and I am still not sure that I fully understand it, but for me, it is the mark of excellent poetry when the words echo through your mind and haunt you till you make some sort of sense of them. Then, upon a later reading, you find a different (or other layer of) meaning. Maybe this is because you are a different person each time you reread it.

“One must have the mind of winter. . .”

What does that mean? At first, I read it as metaphor. Maybe a cold, stark mind? An unemotional mind? A barren mind? A mind with no imagination?

But if you look at the title, we are reminded that it may be literal, it is the mind of the snow man, and that seems to make sense to me, since themes point to what is real versus what is imagined. I am projecting myself into any other interpretation, right? If I read this as an unimaginative mind, for example, am I not saying that winter is a time when there is a lack of life?

That is not winter, that is my projection of winter.

One must have a snowman’s mind to see this winter scene and “not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. . .”

The wind is not miserable, instead, we are miserable in the wind. One must have the snowman’s mind to think of the wind as only wind—not to consider the wind good or bad. The wind is just the wind.

“For the listener, who listens in the snow”

Who is the listener? The snowman? The reader? It is the same “one” that we identified with from the first word of the first stanza.

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumal...

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumala, Finland Suomi: Lumiukko jäätyneellä Saimaalla Puumalassa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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“For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself. . .”

At this point of the poem, whoever you interpret to be the listener has ceased projecting himself into his world. He is “nothing himself”

By doing this, he is able to see the world around him as it actually is. He “beholds nothing that is not there”

And by not reading anything of himself into the world, he sees that there is nothing there.

So, when we stop creating our own worlds, the world has no meaning. In fact, when the listener is able to view things completely factually as a snowman does, completely objectively, the poem is over. It is all over.

Again, it is interesting to note that there is no judgment here. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we create our own worlds? For Stevens, that is not important. It just is.

Popeye

“I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam?” Maybe.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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One response

21 03 2014
priya

Nicely said.

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