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May 6th, 2002

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01:16 pm - The coward writes of poetry

Thing and Nothing in Two Poems by Wallace Stevens

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.
Man Carrying Thing

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

Two wintry poems by Wallace Stevens confound our hopes for finding in them a simple meaning. "The Snow Man" and "Man Carrying Thing" share several prominent features: similar length, similar setting, five common key words. They both begin with the imperative, but rather than clearly state a direction for the reader to follow they seem to involute from there until all sense--or most of it--is lost upon us. Despite being two separate works, it may well be the case that the one may shed some cold light on the other.

"Man Carrying Thing" tells us that meaning should be inhibited, though not denied entirely, by "The poem." Rather than be given an account of what this means, we immediately receive an enactment ("Illustration") of that very dictum. Parallelism with the opening lines makes a poem of the otherwise uncharacterized "brune figure" who "resists / Identity"; at the same time, "Identity" is associated with "the intelligence" (li. 1-4). Of course, this structure doesn't quite makes sense--although it almost does, giving it the "sound of sense," to use a phrase of Robert Frost's. In a twist of meaning, the dictum is fulfilled, and we are left with the feeling of knowing what's being said, although we may not be able to explain it when asked. Addressing this threshold level of awareness in both the poems, Stevens negotiates the concepts of understanding, of thinking, and of what it is to be a thing.

The poem's title gives a striking clue: a thing is carried by a man: in truism of pun and grammar, an object (thing) necessarily has a sub-ject (man) "beneath" it. Ironically, however, the rest of the poem will undercut this ontology to have it fall a different way by showing what this burden necessitates. What we are asked to accept "as secondary" are the "parts not quite perceived / Of the obvious whole" (li. 5-7). What they are secondary to is that "obvious whole": the thing, the object. But if it is so "obvious," why need we actively accept this hierarchy of perceptions and things--should it not be obvious to us as well? Stevens showcases the artificiality, the violence imbibed in any thinging, in any distancing of thing from experience. The first to suffer are our perceptions, which are demoted to mere "parts" (li. 6). The "first hundred flakes of snow / Out of a storm" could have been beautiful, but we have given them up; they are drowned, no longer individual perceptions, but a collective submission to the cold solid storm (li. 9, 10). Likewise, our many disparate "thoughts" we "endure all night," but only to be forgotten like one forgets a dream, with nothing but the "bright obvious" remaining of the flux (li. 9-10). This process of conceptualization, intellectualization, objectification is exposed in its harshness as a cataclysmic break:

             The thing he carries

    The most necessitous sense (li 4-5).

Although "sense" is asserted to be "necessitous," this proposition fails to make sense in its very syntax; the failure is further signaled by the stanza break that comes in mid-sentence.

If meaning in "Man Carrying Thing" is resisted almost immediately, in "The Snow Man" the breakdown of sense comes more gradually. "One must have a mind of winter" seems an innocuous enough, if poetically quaint, opening line; compared to "Man Carrying Thing," where "resist" confronts us at the onset, here there is no hint of conflict. Instead, there is just the expectation of a coming gentle resolution: why must one have a "mind of winter" (li. 1)? And what does that mean, exactly, anyway? But these concerns do not scald the 20th Century reader of poetry. They are perhaps as soothing as "Come live with me and be my love" would have been in the days of Christopher Marlowe: a modern version of the pastoral. The imagery of the next stanza, terse but highly evocative, further assures the reader that revelation is at hand. But as the poem progresses, possibilities bifurcate, and confidence is robbed from us. Each stanza leads us on to the next for the completion of the long sentence that is the poem. Noun phrases such as "the distant glitter // of the January sun" are split across stanza breaks, so that their referent is delayed, at best, or withheld completely (li. 6, 7; 12). The "same wind" is blowing in the "same place," but despite the repetition, we don't know this wind, this place (li. 11, 12). Suddenly, we are lost in the woods and it is snowing around us: can we find our way out of the forest into which Stevens has led us?

To try and do that, let us consider and use as a bridge the words common to the two poems. The important ones are "man," "winter," "cold," "snow," and "must." In "Man Carrying Thing," the man is already situated inside winter; in "The Snow Man" he is invited (or seduced?) to step in (li. 3; 1). And winter is beautiful: the pine trees are "crusted with snow," the junipers are "shagged with ice" ("Snow Man" li. 3, 5); contrast this with the fleetingness of "the first hundred flakes" that are lost upon the man in "Carrying Thing" (li. 9). The cold, a condition--in the sense of a requirement--in "The Snow Man," is in "Man Carrying Thing" a stark objective description--perhaps of a maledict condition (li. 4; 12). "Man Carrying Thing" tells us this "must" be so; "The Snow Man" entices us to try it (li. 1, 1). But are these really the same "it," the same "cold"? They are not: getting used to the cold in "The Snow Man" allows the observer to perceive winter's images, not to be perturbed by the wind, which might otherwise flood him with "misery" (li. 7-8). Thus, the surroundings avoid being attenuated by concept, avoid being evaded by a summary: I am cold, and must go warm myself. Losing snowflakes in "Man Carrying thing" is a sacrifice in the other direction: the direction of sense (as opposed to sensation). If "a storm of secondary things" is taken to mean that the storm itself is primary, then it is only at the sacrifice of the snowflakes that it becomes what it is (li. 11). But, terribly, despite being primary, it too is lost; ultimately it is reduced to the "bright obvious" standing in the very different "cold" (li. 14). The opening line of "Man Carrying Thing" may thus be read as a plea: Perceive! And what would Stevens have us perceive? Why, the unindividuated wonders of winter, missing "[N]othing" of them, nothing and accepting they are, as is "himself," not-things--"nothing"s--in themselves (13, 12, 13).

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