Thinking of Wallace Stevens in Winter

Caroline Hagood
January 3, 2018
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A snowy morning seems the perfect time to revisit two Wallace Stevens winter-snow-philosophy poems that have lived inside me since I first read them years ago, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “The Snow Man.” They open with, “Among twenty snowy mountains, /The only moving thing /Was the eye of the blackbird” and “One must have a mind of winter /To regard the frost and the boughs /Of the pine-trees crusted with snow,” respectively.

This notion of needing to have a mind of whatever one’s looking at to be able to profoundly behold it intrigues me. How can we attain a “mind of winter”? As I’m still puzzling over this, the end of the poem arrives, as if with the answer. “The Snow Man” ends, “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

There is never an “answer” in Stevens but, as far as that’s possible, I conclude we can attain a winter mind by acknowledging that we, as spectators and listeners of winter, are nothing, and that winter itself is nothing, too. Further, this winter contains elements of a nothing that is not there and a nothing that is. I take this to mean that we must give ourselves over to our own nothingness, our numinous presence (or non-presence) as spiritual beings, ego-less and overcome by that which we gaze upon, our surroundings. There’s even a still more numinous sort of nothingness—the kind that “is not there.”

What is a nothing that is not there? I read this, in my lowly human fashion, as one who has not yet transformed into a numinous spiritual being, as a seeing of the world through positive and negative space. I mean that, specially when faced with the towering concept of nothingness, we can decipher that which is there by that which isn’t and vice-versa. In this way, the bird on the tree can be defined as being not-tree, and the tree under the bird can be defined as being not-bird.

This mode of thought is reminiscent of the lines from “Thirteen Ways,” “I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” An inflection can indicate a modulating of the voice, an altering of word form by adding affixes (adding the “s” to “tree” to transform it into “trees,”for instance), or a bend or angle. An innuendo, on the other hand, is more of an implication (like how calling someone frugal can imply they’re stingy). So the question of which type of beauty to prefer could be viewed as the choice between the loveliness of the original item modified or the allure of the sneaky modification that has been there all along, the bend added at the end or the bend that was there from the beginning.

Again, here we have a portrait of the nothingness that is there and the nothingness that is not there, with us viewers and listeners, nothing ourselves, inserted into the drama. In this little existential theater,we are defined by being not what we are looking at. In this play of spiritual spectatorship, the  blackbird’s whistling can only ever be apprehended in the moment after it’s already gone, in that ghostly instant where its recent presence (now an absence) hangs in the air.

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