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

6 12 2012


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)


“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.


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







Banishing your Balloonman: A look at cummings “In Just–“

4 06 2012

in Just-

by: e.e. cummings (1894-1962)

in Just-

spring             when the world is mud-

luscious the little

lame balloonman

whistles         far         and wee

and eddieandbill come

running from marbles and

piracies and it’s


when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer

old balloonman whistles

far         and           wee

and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and






balloonman           whistles




“in just” was originally published in The Dial Volume LXVIII, Number 5 (May 1920). New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.

Go ahead, read this poem out loud.  No one can hear you.  It is the type of poem that begs to be vocalized.  I’ll wait right here till you’re done.

Fun right?  It’s a good one to commit to memory. 

Well, even though it is not “JUST” spring, and instead it is more like “mid to late” spring, I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem lately.  

“In Just–“   seems so playful on one level. I mean, come on,  it’s about spring, kids, and playing outdoors.  We’ve got tons of fun things going on here.  Betty and Isabel jump rope and hop-scotch and dance; Eddie and Bill have marbles and pretend to be pirates.  Good times.   

Everything is brand-spanking new, so exciting, and complete with fresh, unexpected ways of looking at the world like “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”.   Mud is pretty darn luscious when you think about it, too.

It seems like a real feel-good kind of poem. 

Then the balloonman whistles far and wee, and the kids go running and dancing to him.   At first you may think, “Hey, that’s just another fun childhood thing.  The kids are pumped to go get some balloons from the guy.”

 Well, maybe. 

But first, let’s check out the descriptions of the balloonman: little, lame (meaning walks with difficulty), queer (meaning odd), old, and goat-footed. (If you didn’t find him suspect before, maybe the goat-footed bit got you thinking?) 

Plus, what’s up with him always whistling?  


Remind you maybe of this dude, hmmm?  He pretty much fits the bill, right?  Who is he?  Hint: that thing he is holding is a “pan” flute.     

Yup, that’s Pan from Greek mythology.  Pan is a pretty creepy dude/goat.  When he plays his pan flute, he creates panic.  Plus, he is well known for his . . . well . . . lusty ways.  A simple Google image search for Pan yields lots of cringe-worthy images.  Even you Fifty Shades fans may find yourself a bit horrified. 

Okay, so we have these sweet little kids who are loving the beautiful, fresh spring day when they are lured off by the sound of Pan’s flute.  The tone has changed.  Maybe it is not just a feel-good poem, after all. 

What is to happen to them?  Is it sinister?  I mean, do they come back at all?  Or maybe they do come back, but in some changed way?  Could this just represent the unavoidable fall from childhood innocence that is a natural part of growing up? Another manifestation of the good ol’ coming-of-age theme?   

Some people really want this to be a sweet poem, and I feel you.  Really, that would be nice.  So, is it possible that this is just a poor old vendor that the kids describe in this rather unflattering way?  Probably not.  It is really hard to ignore the classic symbolism of the goat feet and whistle. 

This poem makes me think of how sometimes there are people (or things) who take us away from happiness in our lives.  The buzz kills.  The toxic people.  The stuff that clutters up our lives.  

Balloonmen come in various shapes and sizes.  Chances are good that there is one that fits you perfectly:

  • Maybe it is a person who monopolizes your attention and takes you away from what you should be doing. 
  • Maybe it is a teacher or a boss who makes you feel marginalized or incapable. 
  • Maybe it is someone who you think is cool, so you alter your thoughts to match hers—even subconsciously. 
  • Maybe it is drugs or alcohol. 
  • Maybe it is wanderlust—thinking that happiness can be found by changing location.
  • Maybe it is an obsession with stuff, collecting, shopping.

Maybe it is an unscrupulous editor who ripped you off and for a moment made you question yourself?

What all these balloonmen have in common is that their “songs” lure us away from real happiness somehow.  They are false or empty prophets; they are confidence shatterers;  they are never any good for us, but they are so very tempting to listen to. 

Sometimes you don’t recognize the balloonmen in your life for a while, but if you start looking carefully, you will find his feet.  

Oh, and one more thing.  Upon discovery that someone has goat feet, you’ve only one real option.  Don’t even think you have the power to change them to human feet. 

Maybe along with teaching kids to never accept candy from strangers, we should also warn them about the goat-footed among us.