A couple of years ago, an NPR commentator named Jay Keyser said that Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” is “the best short poem in the English language.” While I think it unproductive to call any work of art “best” in any category, I won’t say that Keyser is wrong.
These days, for me, “The Snow Man” is an extremely sad poem, for it brings to me the idea of a particular person so frozen that he can no longer (if he ever could) “think of any misery in the sound of the wind,” who contemplates the world only in terms of an imagination that is so meager that it contains nothing and sees nothing—and not just nothing, but “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The seasons the rest of us know are completely separate from his paltry perception and different from his lacking imagination.
The “listener, who listens in the snow,” but who doesn’t hear, for he is “nothing himself” sounds to me, today, like our president (of course), to whom the voice and vision of the world really does mean nothing, and so he will not (adamantly) learn from it. Like our president who, with nothing inside, tries to imagine himself into being—but still is nothing.
“One must have a mind of winter” to be so frozen into place and idea that the sublimity of “the pine-trees crusted with snow” move one not. The world we live in isn’t even worth considering, let alone worthy of protection. The sparkles of “the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter” do nothing for one who, unlike these evergreens, has no life himself in the winter (or in any other time).
Certainly, one must be attuned to nothing in America today not to hear “the sound of the land.” The people and the world have spoken, but the sounds are meaningless to him.
My sadness, though, is not for the Snow Man. After all, he never was real, being simply the playful creation of others for their own purposes, others who are now moving on, leaving him to melt as the sun finally starts to shine on him.
As shine it will, and always was bound to do.
No, my sadness is not for him, who will drip slowly into the stream of history and be forgotten (aside from the damage he has done), but for the future he has so callously debased, and for the spring that will no longer come so brightly as once it did.
He may seem to cry, as his ice turns to water. But it is we who cry the genuine, salty tears; we look out over the horizon, one increasingly barren, and see what his frozen mind has condemned us to.