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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Have a Contentious and Uncomfortable Holiday; You May Save Humankind: Thoughts on “A Poison Tree”

19 11 2012

 A Poison Tree

By William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

 

There’s a whole spectrum of confrontation styles out there.  On one end we have people who do almost anything to avoid it, and on the other we have people who seem to thrive on it.  You know the type; they throw conflict wherever they go as haphazardly as a little flower girl tossing flowers before a bride. 

Happily, with the exception of teenage girls, most people occupy a space somewhere in between the two extremes. 

I don’t think Blake is espousing an overly combative lifestyle in this poem, but he does have a pretty strong message for those of us who lean too far toward avoiding conflict at all costs.  He reminds people like me, who tend to avoid conflict like I would avoid a snotty nosed child, that when anger is not expressed and resolved, it is dangerous. 

This poem consists of four quatrains, or four-lined stanzas, and the first couplet of the first stanza covers what happens when you tell your friend that you are angry—just like in real life, it is over and done with fast. 

The rest of the poem, however,  delves into what happens when you swallow that anger and “plant” it like a seed inside you. The tree metaphor extends throughout the poem. 

Blake believes that when you swallow your anger, the seed that grows within you is nurtured by all the attention you give it.  Let’s face it, when you are mad at someone, don’t you just keep stewing over it until you do something about it?  It can take over your whole life if you’re not careful.  Anger can easily turn into hatred, and hatred and fear are really indistinguishable twin sisters.  I can’t think of a time when hatred exists for a reason other than fear.  Can you? 

The tree grows and grows with your fears and the tears you water it with. 

Eventually, you start to grow fond of  it and really care for it.  There is a sick pleasure in holding onto grudges—all the rehashing, the plotting for revenge, the sneakiness, the victimized feeling. 

The tree grows and grows till it bears fruit, a shiny poisoned apple, which you offer to your enemy. 

He takes a bite, dies, and you are glad to see him dead beneath your tree. 

Harsh. 

Poison Apple

Poison Apple (Photo credit: andy castro)

What Blake is saying is that anger, when not dealt with, can take hold of your life and destroy it.  You can become transformed from someone who may have been legitimately wronged into  someone who, like a wicked stepmother, delights in murder—or if you want to take it down a notch—delights in hurting other people. 

Alert! Anytime you see an apple in literature, especially one that brings about destruction, you can be

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and ...

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve. Beech wood, 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Erworben 1830, Königliche Schlösser, Gemäldegalerie Kat. 567) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

pretty sure it is an allusion to the biblical apple in the Adam and Eve creation story.  The apple represents man’s downfall, so it is possible that Blake is saying that one of the faults that leads to man’s destruction and fall from a utopic life is repressed anger. 

This anger too easily develops into violence. 

 

Hopefully this poem can help us all deal with the uncomfortable nature of confrontation and calmly tell people when we are mad for any reason.

 Maybe we can stop some of the hatred/ fear in the world by doing so. 

For many of us, there is going to be a lot of family time coming up soon with the start of the holiday season.  Consider blowing away any seeds of anger that you may have by expressing your feelings, even if they are slightly confrontational.  You don’t want to grow any poison trees. 

And, if you happen to have a poison tree already fully grown, chop that sucker down before it bears any poison apples.