One must have a mind of winter
Snow left by the blizzard has receded here, but the cold continues on. We view the landscape from the warm side of the window, venturing out only as our needs require.
On sunny days, a cat may be found stationed on a window ledge, watching deer as they amble past. From inside, I voyage by other means, starting out with The Snow Man, the first lines of which are these:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
In Philadelphia, it’s a tradition to gather at Kelly Writers House for a close reading of The Snow Man. I wasn’t there, but on listening in I learned about homemade soup and bread on offer, a display of hamish knowledge that, in winter, the body needs warming every bit as much as the poetry-loving soul.
After the close reading, members of the group read from winter-themed writings they chose to share. This year’s included everything from a passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace to a clever pairing of poems by Keats (O thou whose face has felt the winter wind) and Rosemarie Urquico (You should date a girl who reads).
The ghost of Keats presides over The Snow Man in other ways, too. The last lines in the Keats poem In drear knighted December are these:
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.
The critic Helen Vendler believes “we understand The Snow Man better, I think, when we see it as Stevens’ answer to Keats’s challenge” issued in that poem.
Vendler walks us through Stevens’s “continuing inner dialogue with Keats.” She shows us, among other things, that Keats’s “tree” becomes specific trees (pine, juniper, and spruce), “frozen time” becomes frost, snow, and ice, and “not to feel” becomes “not to think.” In her ice-clear logic, she concludes:
Stevens’ bold stroke of the three “nothing’s” closing The Snow Man announces, as with a closing of one door and the opening of another, the discovery of the abolition of one old self by a new one, which necessitates at first the contemplation of an absolute void.
I wondered, as I listened to Al Filreis toss out questions, what would Helen Vendler say? Of one thing I’m sure: she’d speak in complete sentences without a hiccup of thought anywhere in sight. But the beauty is that’s not what matters. Anyone can take part, and it’s fun to try.
Perhaps my favorite part on listening in was Filreis’s exhortation to those assembled to read The Snow Man aloud:
. . . because this is what we do, because when you read this poem you shake off winter, because it’s impossible to have a mind of winter. And when you really, really do it right, you get to see winter for what it is. It’s not miserable. That’s why we created this program. The idea is to scare off the winter blues, the misery and the wind, because . . . it is simply the winter, and the sun is simply doing its thing . . . . OK, here we go, ready together, all of us, with wintry gusto . . .
Collaborative close reading of The Snow Man
For Wallace Stevens on PennSound, click here.
George Benjamin, A Mind of Winter
“A Mind of Winter is a bejewelled setting of Wallace Stevens . . .”. — Clements
John Luther Adams, In the White Silence (excerpt)
John Luther Adams (not to be confused with John Adams) . . . . works best on a larger canvas, and In the White Silence, where Morton Feldman rubs shoulders with Alan Hovhaness, should win the composer many friends, for it’s a gorgeous 75 minutes of meditative stillness.—David Hurwitz
Hans Abrahamsen, Winternacht
“[T]he precision and poetic intensity of these miniatures, inspired by the poetry of Trakl, are as extraordinary as ever.—Andrew Clements
Hans Abrahamsen, Schnee
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica
Einojuhani Rautavaara, Cantus Arcticus (excerpt)
Terje Isungset, Fading Sun (using instruments made from ice)
Postscript: While I’ve included review excerpts on less familiar pieces where available, I don’t necessarily share the reviewer’s taste. For example, while I thought the Benjamin piece interesting—and certainly on point—I’m not altogether keen on it as a setting of the poem.
Credits: The quotations from the poems may be found at the links provided. The quotations from Helen Vendler are from Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire. The quotation from the 2013 Kelly Writers House Mind of Winter program is my transcription of an excerpt from the audio of the program that may be found here. The quotations about music on the listening list may be found at the links provided. The photographs, as always in these posts unless otherwise indicated, are mine.