On Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”

Posted on April 7, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Poetry |

Okay, the much belated entry on Stevens’ “The Snow Man.” If you haven’t had a look at the poem itself yet, find it here in Poetry Friday stack.

This particular poem has been with me since my freshman year of college. And I still find things in it I hadn’t noticed before. Like just now, I was looking at the stanzas (poetry paragraphs)–three lines each. That’s unusual as a form, but I think the evenness of the stanzas suits the coldness of poem’s tone–and the three-point structure almost makes me think of a waltz. One, two, three, one, two, three, he keeps turning us as we dance through the poem.

The evenness of the stanzas says something about the tone as well. We’re being told something in a very level, reasonable voice–flat even. There’s no hurrying to jam extra lines into one stanza, no lingering with a couplet (two-line stanza) here or there. Nor does the poem take up much space on the page–what he’s asserting here is not A BIG IDEA, and trust me, Stevens is a poet capable of asserting big ideas. It’s a small poem, only 15 lines with only a handful of lines more than 10 syllables.

Those numbers may not sound significant, but in poetry they come close to the big magic: 14 lines of 10 metered syllables each is a sonnet. So Stevens is close to the sonnet form here–but choses instead of the sonnet’s more typical four-line stanzas to use his own three-line structure and to use some really short lines, one that’s only 5 syllables long.

In American poetry, the “conversational line”–the dominant line form of the 20th century and still the dominant form today (though there’s great arguments to be made that text messaging and other electronic media are shortening the standard conversational line)–is 8-12 syllables. It’s called the “conversational line” because 8-12 syllables is about how much one speaker in a casual conversation can say at one time:

“Some weather we’re having, huh?”(7)

“Can’t believe it’s this cold in April.”(9)

“I know. I already packed my sweaters away. “(12)

So Stevens is using lines that tend to be a little shorter than the standard conversational line and he’s not using a standard sonnet form, even though he’s close to it. That tells us he’s doing something different from a sonnet (sonnets generally glory in something or sorrow over it) and that he’s probably artificially shortening some of his lines–which speaks of a certain restraint. So what is he doing?

Above all else that Stevens is remembered for–he is remembered as a poet of great imagination. And here, he’s imagining himself as a snow man. He’s trying to imagine what it would be like to be a creature made entirely of snow–but set with eyes, maybe with earmuffs to suggest ears. He’s asking himself, what would a snowman see? What would a snowman hear? What would a snowman feel or think? As poem, it’s an absurd project, but it’s a testament to his immense talent that he can start with such a wacky premise and produce such a beautiful piece.

And I think the success of this pieces lies in the creation of that cold, reasonable tone (none of the emotionality of a sonnet, none of warmth of a casual conversation between strangers), that measured tumbling of the three lines stanzas, those short restrained lines.

He’s got me convinced that’s how a snowman might perceive the world. Has he convinced all of you? Anybody want to post a counter poem? Or perhaps a poem from a different point of view, say one of the spring’s first daffodils? How would the form of that poem be different, how would its outlook change?

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4 Responses to “On Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man””

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This is my first post
just saying HI

This spoke to me in a very deep level. The poem itself is amazingly sensual but this response to it made me want to live again. Thank YOU!

I am a Spanish student of English literature in my last year of the degree (and here it last for 5 years!) and I have never read a better explanation of a poem. I loved the way you approached it, teaching us how to appreciate it and and the same time surprising/shocking the reader with your conclusions, as if you were a wonderful storyteller addressing a child. Congratulations!
Your small “lesson” has touched me, and I wish I could read some more about your vision of poetry in some other poems. It would increase my interest and admiration for poetry, no doubt! Well, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Whenever I have the time, I will be delighted to explore a little more your web page. Rebeca

Nicely posted


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