Tracy Lee Karner

Insight into The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

In response to Richard Gilbert’s suggestion that I tell the story behind the story of my book (which is about, among other things, “becoming a writer”), I’ve been writing a series on poetry’s influence on my development. Poetry was my first love. And although poetry is no longer my one and only literary infatuation, I still believe that immersing oneself in an occasional  poem can be useful to anyone who wants to write with greater precision and pizazz.
So I invite you to dive into Wallace Stevens’ wintry-chilly poem, the The Snow Man (yes, it’s rather a startling experience, but the whole point of this adventure is to shock your heart a little):

  1. Recall a time in your life when you were emotionally frozen, enclosed in “a mind of winter.”
  2. Remember how it feels to “have been cold a long time.”
  3. Consider the misery that happens when a person merely exists in his circumstances, standing lifelessly in the blizzardy-pain, like a mindless snowman.
  4. Envision what could happen if you would employ the powers of imagination and belief–to create hope, to live inspired by dreams, to resist annihilation while you melt, to transform, to become something better, despite everything.
  5. Read the poem The Snow Man (click here) and then read it again, slowly. Read it aloud.
  6. Experience the poem, however you experience it. And think about whatever it causes you to think about.

If you crave  a heady-intellectual analysis of The Snow Man, check out this interesting blah-blah on the American Poetry website. But feel free to skip this part of the exercise if literary criticism makes you yawn. Scholarly analysis is not necessary for the enjoyment of poetry.
Wallace Stevens is the poet who first made me think about thinking. His poetry invited me to go beyond my purely emotional responses to poems, to delve into an intellectual exploration of what poetry can be and what it can do for the heart, soul and mind. He and his poems made me want to become a more thoughtful writer.
What or who makes you think about thinking? 

31 thoughts on “Insight into The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens”

  1. I find that listening to Bob Dylan is a good way for me to get going creatively. I listen a bit (he was always on in the car on my way to my writing class), then I have complete quiet – and then I usually find my starting point.

    1. Bob Dylan is from my home state. But that’s not the only reason I think he’s brilliant.
      Once, in 1967, my husband attended a weird little hippy wedding in a park in Saint Paul, at sunrise. Bob Dylan was sitting under a tree as the sun came up, composing. He joined the wedding as a witness. How cool is that?

  2. Aye the mind of winter. We will have it son enough–Labrador is getting a start on it today. But yes you must be of the mind. Perhaps that’s a fatal mistake made by so many would judge the actions of their predecessors.
    Oh, and your blah blah blah line made me smile. Thirty-five years have not erased the incredible boredom I, along with others, had to sit through in the guise of “first year English” at University. Though a lifelong reader I was totally unprepared for the coerced naval gazing also known as … Oh MY I cannot even name it now 🙂 I often joke that I love reading, love the written word DESPITE higher education.

    1. Reading literary criticism totally stole my joy for a while. It took some serious mind-bending to get back into the pure love of literature & poetry. So I’m with you. I love the written word despite the education that almost made me detest the written word….

      1. This kind of backs up what Picasso famously said regarding children are all born artists – but the problem is to remain one as they grow up. Also Ken Robinson who reckons we teach kids out of their creativity.

        1. I wrote a whole major project for my degree, about my struggle to come back home to my creative side (as a writer), after education, which introduced me to my inner literary critic, stepped in and properly squelched that part of me. There’s still an uneasy tension going on…
          So now I have to watch Ken Robinson on TED. I love how these conversations introduce me to people, authors, speakers & artists who just weren’t on my radar.

  3. richardstuartgilbert

    Thank you for this, Tracy, and for your unfolding series. I love that poem! The simple, modest precision of the first part; the Zen mind depth and paradox of the end. There’s a lot there to learn from as a writer, indeed. And to think about as a person.

    1. That’s exactly why I love this poem, too.
      In my first years of loving it, I had absolutely no clue what was going on, and probably missed the point entirely. Here’s the part of the essay I decided not to include (because I’m experimenting with keeping my blog posts to 300-500 words, trying to let the comments and dialogue that develops lead the conversation).
      I loved the poem’s stark beauty on the page. I admired its snowy brilliance while I lacked the literary and philosophical knowledge to describe what was being implied and why the poem itself, in form and in sound, is so stunning. My lack of insight did not matter to me when I was young. Is a toddler’s enjoyment of a lovely snowfall inferior to her father’s enjoyment because she cannot describe the cycle of precipitation and the atmospheric conditions that produce a snowflake? I tobogganed down the crusty surface of this poem, gliding along on the thrilling sensation of possible danger.

      1. richardstuartgilbert

        Great paragraph. I have realized something like that about appreciation. I used to lament that my students had to be able to relate to the main character or a memoir was no good. Then I realized that I was just older and had been their age, so could relate to a wider range of ages.

        1. It’s what puts the wisdom in “wisdom,” and the music in “music” that when we’re inexperienced and unlearned we can grasp something of its beautiful profundity, without clearly understanding what we’re noticing, and that as we gain experience and education, there is so much more to explore than we ever imagined.

    1. Thanks, Jill–I’m a John Denver fan myself. I actually learned to play “Annie’s Song” on the guitar. (Had to practice for months–and sang it to what I though was a mesmerized audience for years afterwards…
      And that photo–I was driving down the road and saw that Gazebo on the frozen pond. Incredible, isn’t it? I thought it resembled a wedding cake.

  4. My favorite phrase of this powerful poem is “…and the nothing that is.”
    At a writers’ retreat in Cranbrook, Michigan, the instructor proclaimed, “Any writer whose first love was poetry should realize that whatever roads follow, at the end of the journey the writer will again return to a poetry passion.”
    Poetry was not my first love, not even close, and a part of me has always envied those who did experience that first, last, and returning love.

  5. I remember times in my childhood of waking up to heavy snowfall ovenight. Of wanting to be the first one to make footprints in the virgin snow and to then stand in the middle of our garden, which was surrounded by fields and woods, and live for a moment in the muted stillness that the silence of the snow brought with it. To imagine that the world could be as still as this for ever.
    I also remember when I have been frozen, unable to move, as still and as silent as ‘the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’.
    Tracy, I have never read this poem before, thank you for sharing it and for your very interesting read about it. It has drawn me in and I find it hauntingly beautiful, as is your photograph.
    My music for creativity? Sweet Child of Mine by Guns and Roses does it for me everytime 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the poem, Sherri. I predict it will call you back, as it does me, at unpredictable moments. I wonder whether iit would mean as much to me if I had always lived in the tropics…
      For only a few years in my life have I lived in a climate without snow. A year seems incomplete without at least of couple of months of winter, which seems incomplete without snow. I find it interesting that something so beautiful can also be so deadly.

  6. What a thought provoking poem and wonderful question Tracy! As a blogger I often find myself struggling with the question of what I want to share with my readers, whether it be a personal story or an anecdote about something I find important. There’s probably a lot of things that make me think about thinking. But sometimes I find the best way to start is just sit down at the computer and start a stream of consciousness. Then I can go back through and dissect and pick apart the most important things.

    1. So, thinking, without thinking about what you’re thinking, leads you to think about thinking.
      I’m not being flippant; that’s actually an incredibly profound observation that you’ve come up with. It works for me, too. Stream-of-consciousness is a key that unlocks creativity.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Elizabeth. Do you get much snow where you’re living? That photo was taken in New Hampshire, where we always got over a 100 inches of snow every year. Beautiful, but a lot of work to shovel…

  7. Book always and … Stefano. He is the most balanced person I know and he knows exactly how my thinking process works.
    P.S. Stefano will send you a list of possible Italian name we came up with. Hopefully, you will like one.

    1. Now that’s a totally lovely answer. And I know exactly what you mean–
      I id just get the list today, and am looking forward to giving it my (our) full attention after our guests go back home to Germany. We’re having too much fun hosting… 🙂

  8. Writing like this makes me think about thinking Tracy – a very thought-provoking post and poem. I’m one of those people who will read or hear something and not necessarily respond straight away, but will ponder on it for a while. I like to draw my own conclusions – my interpretation won’t necessarily match the ‘official’ interpretation and I have been disappointed more than once when this has tainted my original impression, but then that’s the point of art in all its forms, to prompt us to interpret life in our own way by making us think.

    1. Thank you, Andrea. That’s quite a compliment. 🙂
      I agree about the point of art–to make us think. Well said!
      And I think it’s best for all of us to ponder, and come to our own conclusions. It’s too easy to let someone else do the thinking, which is why so many people fall back on that. But it isn’t very rewarding…

  9. Tracy, thank you for sharing this beautiful poem. I left snow country (Central New York) behind when we moved to Florida in 1999. I have conflicted feelings about winter: Every first snow, I’m sucker-punched by its beauty and dreaded the 55-mile commute (one way) home from work as I followed a snowplow on I-81. Snow does give you a time to reflect and really hear, see and feel nature.

    1. I miss snow’s beauty when I don’t live in a climate that has some. But I never miss the hassles of digging out, getting stuck behind snow plows, hearing snow plows in the middle of the night, and paying greater attention to the wind-chill factor than to the actual temperature during the weather report.

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