The Snow Man

I’m sure many readers here are enjoying spring or its imminent promise. In Minnesota, not so much. It was 4⁰ F. when I awoke this morning, and everyone is already flinching for another snow-storm due this weekend. So let’s have one more winter piece, this time by Wallace Stevens from his landmark collection Harmonium, “The Snow Man.”

Abandoned Winter Schwinn 1080

Not the first sign of spring.

 

Over at the Interesting Literature blog, Oliver Tearle reminded me that Stevens was influenced by John Keats as a younger man, and in his reading of “The Snow Man”  he has Stevens’ poem as a statement of his break from that youthful connection. Keats, and the romantics of his sort, were great fans of the pathetic fallacy and have no shame in ascribing to any landscape or natural object feelings and personality that the poet can address.

Even if we think that talking Keatsian nightingales bearing messages is an absurdly old-fashioned trope, we’ve never left the idea that weather or a landscape is supposed to mean  something. Book, movie, poem, song video—if we’re given a bleak winter picture we’re usually led to understand that death, suffering, despair, scarcity, loss, or the like is what’s being conveyed.

In “The Snow Man”  Stevens describes a winter scene. Snow-trimmed trees in an icy wind which is carrying refracting snow crystals. Stevens’ conclusion from this is ironically—well there’s no other way to put it—cold. We’re not supposed to draw any meaning from it, other than meaning-free is-ness.

It just so happens, that Keats wrote his own short lyric poem about winter “In the Drear Nighted December.”  And yes, there’s immediately an emotion attributed to a bare-branched tree wind-whipped by sleet and then to a frozen brook in Keats’ poem.

What’s that emotion? Happy.

Woah—why happy? Because Keats has these landscape features also in a state of simple is-ness. They reckon no loss from summer, know no delay ‘till spring.

Keats Buddhist koan is “to feel and not to feel it.” Stevens, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” These two poems approach in seeming opposition, but merge in agreement.

The Snow Man

A Modernist sculpture of American poet Wallace Stevens

 

One other thing in “The Snow Man”  to note: where’s the titular snow man? Perhaps including one in Stevens’ scene would add a connotation of jolly play, or the impermanence of artistic making—but if that’s so, why call the poem “The Snow Man?”  Could it be a mind trick, the equivalent of instructing “Imagine a winter scene, but I don’t want you to see a snow man in your imagination. Make very sure  you don’t even think a little bit about a jaunty snow man or an elaborately constructed one now melting…?” Tearle’s solution is that the snow man is the speaker of the poem, the “nothing that is” there, the cold observer that we don’t see because we’re looking from his cindered eyes.

My performance of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”  can be played with the gadget below. If you’d like to read along, the full text of the poem and Oliver Tearle’s short discussion of it is here. Want to hear Keats’ “In the Drear Nighted December?”  We presented it here a while back as part of the Parlando Project, and we have over 300 other audio pieces archived here ready to listen to.

 

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A Winter’s Tale

When I first conceived of the Parlando Project several years ago I did not plan to analyze the poems I presented. My original vision was to present the combinations of music and words directly, unmediated.

I had several reasons, including that I didn’t think I was particularly good at that, but the chief reason was that I was worried that was too easily associated with the idea that poetry was some kind of tricky riddle meant to lock out it’s meaning from the unworthy, rather than a different way to approach how things are.

For every person who is satisfied by “solving” a poem, there are twenty-times more that find the effort not worth their time or attention, and a not unsubstantial number that have been found-out for bad readings, wrong guesses, and are shamed from ever making another attempt with poetry. Or for safety and comfort,  some readers will restrict themselves only to poetry that seems to reveal itself at first sight.

The experience of poetry as rote code-breaking or writing of it like a video game cheat solution, even if you find that sort of thing engaging and fun, reduces it. Constraining your poetry experience to easily-grasp aphorisms and reassuring sentiments also limits it.

Once in operation the Parlando Project didn’t follow my plan. If you’ve been reading the more than 300 posts here accompanying the audio presentations of poetry, you’ll have seen that most of the time I present some kind of explanation of what I think the poem means. How’d that happen? Mostly because I ask questions as I experience the poems, and then I think “Why not try to find an answer?” Those answers often delight me, and I can’t help but share them.

And maybe that’s just as well. Get the puzzle part, the explain part, out of the way and we can get on with the enjoyment of the word-music, the music-music, and the innumerable costumes, persons, and ways of speaking by which the poems come walking up to us.

Why introduce today’s piece, D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  like this? Because I can’t tell you what this poem of his means to me, at least not yet. For a moment I stopped myself and asked how I could perform or present this without knowing that.

If you’d like to see the whole text of the poem, you can view it here.

Lawrence, better known as a novelist, was also a poet published in the early Imagist anthologies, and this poem fits well into that new Imagist idea of how poetry should present things. Minnesota is covered by a couple of feet of snow at this point in our particular winter this February. The winter landscape Lawrence presents is vivid and rhymes with my experience.

English planter in early spring

Early spring in England, daffodils in the grass, flowers in planters…and then snow.

 

It’s the other character besides the poet/speaker/singer and the landscape that puzzles me. It’s only a pronoun, “she.” And what do we know of “she?” Female. Walks out in the deep snow, no mention that there is any accompanying her. “She’s waiting.” For what? We aren’t told directly, though the lovely line that describes her waiting “Impatient and cold, half sobs struggling into her frosty sigh” is both vivid and mysterious. England isn’t as cold in winter as Minnesota, but no sane and competent person goes standing out in the rural snow alone without some good reason. Well except for hunters, and my sane statement still stands. I did give some thought about the poem being a hunting story, but I can’t think of any English game that would be large enough to sob and sigh.

The last stanza only compounds the mystery for me. She’s “come so promptly.” Huh? Sounds like there’s more than a common-sense supposition that there must be a reason for her to be there. The poet/speaker/singer steps to her, and the poem concludes before it tells us, saying only the question “Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?”

I read one attempt to explicate this as the story of a woman who has come to meet her lover who is about to break up with her, keying partly off the line that says she’s come promptly though she knows that “she’s only nearer to the inevitable farewell.” I don’t have anything better myself, but I’m not buying that. Another says she’s death. I could go part-way for that, although then what’s she/death doing knowing about and being constrained by farewell? Death breaks up with us, we don’t break up with death!

Could she be winter? The poem’s opening says winter has just arrived or returned overnight, so there’s a link to the “promptly” remark. That gorgeous sobs and sighs line could be winter winds. If this is so, then what the poet/speaker/singer has to tell winter is that they know spring will inevitably come.

And so my appreciation for the mystery continues, it isn’t solved now, and it was far from solved when I performed this earlier this week, singing only the question, and thinking of Mark Hollis. It was intriguing to forget certainty as I sang lines of uncertain meaning, but I could grab onto their beauty and find emotional hooks in threads even if I couldn’t view the tapestry. My earlier experiences of this poem, particularly when heard aloud and formed in my voice, are no lesser than my experiences after questions and possible answers.

It’s my hope, as it has been since I started this Project, that you can do the same, and listen to the audio pieces (perhaps several times if you are intrigued) and let meaning and the emotions that surround it accrue in its own time, for your own self. The player gadget for D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  is below, and thanks for listening, it means so much to me.

 

Longfellow Goes Beat

I live in one of the northernmost states in the U.S., a place where winter cannot be denied, and so we must make our treaty with cold and snow. Some will even claim it makes us better persons—hardier, accepting of the Zen of difficulties. Still, if Minnesota has inherent Buddhist elements, it doesn’t lessen my attachment to a shelf of warm clothes.

When I think of Buddhism I do not think first of ancient and overseas masters, but instead of the Beat Generation writers of my youth, the mostly men who reacted to the growing abstractions and high-mindedness of High Modernism with a return to immediacy and intimacy. The Beats could be seen as beaten-down by something, past the chance of winning a warm success, but they also asked that the word be understood as short for “beatific.” Allen Ginsberg explained: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way.*”

Like many things that meet America, Beat got absorbed and its rule-breaking became a style, a fad, a fashion, a look, a required attitude received with only enough meaning to make the accessory match the outfit. Every time I read to music here, I fear I’m seen as wearing a costume, playing a role.

Gaslight Poetry Cafe

Not quite as portrayed on the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the legendary New York Gaslight coffee shop

 

So, what’s this got to do with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the square’s square—the man who wrote poetry that poets of the last 100 years find worthless?

Let me put Longfellow in a laboratory and see what we find. My lab: it’s a jazz club, probably downstairs, past the gray concrete curb turning winter white. It’s darkened enough inside the room that it’s sometime, night—but what year? The crowd is burbling, so’s the coffee machine. Wait staff are delivering and clearing tables, setting a tray on the bar for a moment to let another pass, talking of nights-off. A couple in the darker corner are nearly making out and can’t hear the band for the sight and breath of each other. A writer at a table closes a notebook, nothing more is in it today. The room is small but fairly full, about half talking their own talk and about half looking at the low bandstand, the quartet.**

The bass and drums begin, the guitar comments and the piano-player chords on the side. The bearded man steps to the mic, sheaf of paper in his hand.

“Snow-Flakes***”  he announces. Is this beatific? Is this visionary? Maybe it is, he looks that way. He is a strange cat: saying words “doth” and “bosoms”—like Lord Buckley perhaps. If he was translated into Chinese and then back to English, the Beat element would be clear; but even as it is, the words are beautiful, and he lets them slowly stay there that way, “This is the poem of the air.”

The drummer is still slapping the snare with his brushes, as the bearded man at the microphone gestures onward to the band, with a slight roll of his hand. His face changes. The vision’s past, is there a resolution? “Psalm of Life****”  he says.

This other poem is confrontation to everything we’d expect in this club for those who listen here and think about what they heard. “Mournful numbers,” are told on this stage every night, and he’s dissing them right off, and he ceases to pause his words now. The dance of the snowflakes becomes a march of “Let us, then, be up and doing.” What is this? The must be shoveling and stuck car after the beautiful, sorrowful snowfall?

He ambles off as the band riffs for another couple of minutes. What does this strange combination of poems mean? A snow-flake satori in a field, and then a command to earnestly strive. Yes, this Longfellow is a strange cat, even here.

My performance of Longfellow’s “Snow-Flakes”  and part of “A Psalm of Life,”  is available with the gadget below.

 

*In the course of the long influences that led me to doing this project, a local Iowa rock band of the late Sixties, “Emergency Broadcast System,” would open their 1968 sets with the singer speaking a good portion of Ginsberg’s America  over the band riffing.

**I recorded this on Christmas afternoon, first laying down the drum track and playing my Bass VI, an odd instrument that adds two higher pitched strings to the conventional four-string bass, instead of adding lower strings, the more common variation. I used this higher range to play the repeating, descending riff that occurs throughout the song. I played guitar around this rhythm section and then played the block piano chords. As a last step, I figured if I’m going to impersonate a jazz quartet I might as well go all-in and put in some fake club ambience. Maybe this did come from binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel  this month with my wifeor from nights at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul and listening to Sunday at the Village Vanguard  by the Bill Evans Trio too many times.

***This one goes out to Mary Grace McGeehan of My Year in 1918, who thought of this poem when she thought of Longfellow. It’s one I’d overlooked until she brought it up, and what a graceful lyric it is!

****I performed only about half of this once well-known poem of Longfellow’s here. Several phrases in it were mottos for my grandparents’ generation, and my parent’s generation passed them on to me in occasional speech under a thin varnish of irony to preserve them. As a result, both the poem’s claim that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and it’s command to “Let us, then, be up and doing” have remained with me.

Snow Storm on a Blank Page

Longtime readers will know that one of the principles for the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” I partly do this out of a contrarian streak, as the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories. Yet, obviously, I do not take my path due to a condemnation of personal stories. After all, without other’s stories, I would not have the ones I present and react to here.

I believe something additional happens in my process of presenting my encounters with other people’s stories. You, the valued readers and listeners here, add a third part to this. Do you see, what I see, as I am looking at, speaking someone else’s silent words; while you remain off to the side, with your ears at each side of your own mind and memory, your eyes parallel to your own mouth? No, you will see something slightly different.

Yet, this morning, let me violate my self-imposed principle, and write, as if this were a conventional blog, about myself.

I awoke today after a week that finally found promised 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to an utter snowstorm that had itself awakened from a night sky that fitfully dreamed rain, sleet, hail, and freezing rain. The wind outside had someplace to go in a hurry.

I am an Amateur of Velocipeaes by Leonara Carrington

Leonara Carrington dreams of bicycles with oversize tires

As a contrarian, I dressed and took to my marvelous Minnesota invention, the fat bike fitted with 4 inch wide studded and knobbed tires. A morning with few moving, yet full of noise. Snow crunching under the tires, wind restating its case more insistently over again, the typewriter of snow against my goggles.

Parked at the curbs, even the most fearsome cars were growing a white carapace, their windshield wipers stretched out, insect arms, quivering in the wind.

Windsheld wipers stretched out insect arms

“Insect arms, quivering in the wind”  wipers left out to keep them from being encased in ice

To be an old man on a bicycle is to know gratitude. Does a fierce April snowstorm tell a story? Perhaps it does. Is it beautiful, or a false and comfortable frightening that leaves others inside, deciding that internal pleasures are best this morning. But I wished to hear its story today, to see it. As I rode, the wind said yes and no in its one direction. The snow said music is frozen yet moving. The whiteness says color can only exist if you make it.

In the middle of the week I had driven two friends to the airport. They saw this sign “If you see something, say something.” I thought, isn’t that the fourth Imagist rule, one unstated by F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound? Yes, you must honor the thing and your reaction to it, using no word just because you believe you must use that word, and remember you are making music, not marching. But the first rule, which I understand now in the multitude of a blizzard: if you see something, say something.

A Dust of Snow

Here’s another winter poem by Robert Frost to put to our uses. Writing about my last piece here, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,”  I wondered about the actualities of the scene the poet was describing: a New England winter road in a dark snowy evening before the coming of rural electrification. Frost would know, of course, that it would be quite dark in those conditions. But did he use that knowledge when he wrote the poem? Did he, the author—like I did as a reader once (despite knowing too the darkness of rural night)—visualize a well-lit snowfall on trees, an alluring and beautiful sight that might tempt him to stay and watch for a while?

I can’t say for sure.

Frost’s “A Dust of Snow” is even shorter, and the accepted meaning of its images has been a settled thing for some time. Last time I wondered if “Stopping by Woods”  was more a poem about a man who was lost in the dark in both levels of meaning rather than a man who was tempted by bright beauty. I could have been wrong, but I think it’s worth considering. With “A Dust of Snow”  certain images have been determined by most academic readers to be, well, symbolic. What if we consider them as real, natural objects and not as handy metaphors?

Robert Frost with axe

Let’s cut down on our use of overdetermined symbols with Robert Frost

We start right off with a crow. “A symbol of death” it is said. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt the poem to think that. I think it’s a crow. A dark bird, darker yet against the snow, and no crow would let the poet that near without a racket of loud caws. The poet doesn’t let us hear the caws though. Instead, like the uncanny sound of sifting snow in “Stopping by Woods,”  Frost wants us to feel just a dusting of snow falling from the branch as the bird flaps off. He wants the main action in the poem to be almost microscopic. He could have written that the bird’s takeoff “dumped a pound of cold slush down my collar”—but that wouldn’t be the poem he wrote. Is the dust a symbol of death too? Or is it an image of a tiny action of little weight? I hold to the later.

Oh, and symbol alert! The tree the bird left is a hemlock tree. Or as the movieReal Genius  reminds us in “the immortal words of Socrates, who said: ‘I drank what?”

How aware was Frost that the American Hemlock is a pine tree and the European poison is a completely different, smaller plant? If this were written by the avid amateur botanist Emily Dickinson, we’d know the poet would know this. Even William Carlos Williams M. D. might have need to know about the derivations of poison. Like the crow being “death” or a bird, “hemlock” could be a reference to death or suicide—but the evergreen is also a symbol of life in winter too, if it must be a symbol. Frankly I think either taken in a one-to-one direct simile way may overdetermine the poem. In the book of nature, having a black bird against white snow causing the small, light amount of snow to fall from an evergreen tree is sufficient.

And this snow falls on the narrator of the poem, and the small sprinkling of snow lifts the rueful mood. I think that’s the essence of the poem: the smallest action of nature, a flighting crystalline snow sprinkle that may not have weighed an ounce, can lift a human out of their dense internal fixations. I think that’s a more graceful poem than the leaden march of death-crows, grave-dust snow and poison trees. I could be wrong, but I like that poem better.

Musically, a much simpler arrangement than last time, just a bass and 12-string guitar. I’m trying to carve out time to prepare for some more recording with the LYL Band tomorrow. Even if we are successful, you won’t hear those pieces for some time, so use the player below to hear “A Dust of Snow.”

Thanks again for the likes, comments, and the sharing of these pieces on your blogs or on social media.

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

Today I’m presenting a piece that is extraordinarily well-known, by an American poet whose work is still read and remembered outside of academic settings, Robert Frost.

In such cases it’s easy to think we know the poem, perhaps we’ve even memorized it in whole or in part, and we then say we know it in that special way. If we studied it in school, perhaps we learned or apprehended some deeper meanings for it. If this is so with you, I’ve had those experiences with “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  too.

Yet, sometimes, when we look at something with intended freshness, things step out from our remembered poem and introduce us to things we didn’t realize were always there. Let’s start with just how I (and perhaps you) have visualized the setting for this poem.

Currier and Ives Sledding in Central Park

In the rural winter of Frost’s time, things would be considerably more dark

Is Frost in a woods, a bright high-contrast Currier and Ives scene of crisp white snow and colored accents? Not as he wrote it. The title and a line in the second stanza tells us he’s on (presumably) a road, and that he is between the woods and a frozen lake. Is there a full moon and clear sky? No clear sky, it’s snowing, so overcast. He says “the darkest evening of the year,” so the moon isn’t adding significant light. In the rural New England of Frost’s time, it’s probably dark and getting darker, in a way that few of us know darkness today. There are no street lights, no farm yard lights, likely no headlights. One might see villages spotted with oil-lamp-lit windows from the crest of a hill, but he’s told us no village is in sight.

When he says he only thinks he knows “Whose woods these are,” he probably means, “I could tell you if it were noon, but not in this dark.” In the rural area of my youth, even forty years after this poem was written, directions were still given by knowing who owned (or once owned) a piece of land. Is he lost? Possibly. At the least, he wants us to know that he’s not exactly sure where he is.

At the end of the first stanza he says he stopping to watch the woods fill up with snow. If he accomplishes this, he doesn’t tell us. There are hundreds of good lines to describe snow falling on trees visually, and Frost has written many of them, but he doesn’t do it here. Is he leaving us to visualize it ourselves, from our own rich storehouse of memories? That’s possible. And if you and I remember the poem as having images of falling snow drifting through tree boughs in moonlight, that worked. My current guess is that Frost’s narrator could “see” this too, but like us, only in their mind.

It’s a testament to how thoroughly we prioritize visual imagery in poetry that we think those images are there, even if we’ve memorized the poem. Frost was especially proud of the poem’s third stanza, and justly so. It’s all sound images. The dark and solitary nature of being in the middle of un-occupied rural space at night allows sounds to take the place of what our eyes would lord over otherwise. It starts with the horse sounding his harness bells, bells not merely a decorative pretext to sing “Jingle Bells,”  but a useful method of letting other narrow-road users know someone’s coming around a curve or hill-crest, particularly in the dark. And the snow image that’s really there? It’s so quiet and he’s so focused in the darkness, that he can hear the sweep of the top layer of snow blowing across the surface of the rest.

The infinite depth and darkness of the woods in the final stanza is not just a metaphor. It’s dark out, and it will not get lighter until morning. Its loveliness, invisible in the dark, is conceptual art at this point for Frost.

In this view, the decision about staying or continuing the journey is not a temptation of a seductive external snowfall-on-the-woods scene, nor is it a thought of embracing death or a contemplation of suicide, though those elements may be there as subtext. The situation is “I’m not even sure where I am on this road in the falling dark. The momentary beauty I sought here is elusive and mostly in my head. Keep following the road, though I don’t have sure landmarks and don’t know for how many miles. Better the finite, even if not quantifiable, promises of the rotating wheel of my buggy than the depth of a forest I cannot see.”



When Frost reads it himself, he doesn’t sound like he’s tempted to linger either.

And the sleep he ends the poem with? Frost always maintained it wasn’t death in metaphorical disguise, despite what professors in electrically lit rooms might think. The story is that he wrote “Stopping by the Woods”  at end of a long night of work on another, longer poem. Any writer would recognize that it’s actual sleep he now desires, rest that we only allow after exhausting our attempts to see what is lovely, dark and deep despite the night.

Musically, I sought to combine the familiar with a few twists for this one. There’s a reassuring folkie acoustic guitar part and even a cod banjo motif I played to my rusty ability. But then a cello and viola part carries throughout. Instead of bass guitar, I decided to play tambura, a traditional drone instrument of South Asian music, on my guitar using a MIDI interface.

I liked how it came out, maybe you will too. The player gadget below will let you hear it.