Notes from the Green Couch

mind of winter

A celebration of winter at the Writers House.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The last month of every year is marked by two arrivals: winter and the holidays. With the winter comes prolonged darkness, plummeted temperatures, and frozen precipitation. As nature launches its frigid assault, however, we counter with the warmth of family, friends, and festivities. Soon after, a new year begins and the holiday cheer dies away. The cold of winter lingers. Winter has only begun.

This realization provokes a mass lamenting. How ironic that during the most depressing time of the year the calendar offers no solace. Comfort and coziness do not exist outside of a crackling living room fire. Upon seeing this dilemma several years ago, the Writers House concocted a warming remedy. Instead of throwing a holiday gathering, when yet another party is least needed, the hub planned an event to alleviate the cold. At first struggling with a name, the hub ultimately agreed on Mind of Winter - a phrase from the event's now-keynote poem, Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man."

Notes from the Green Couch

While, like any other Writers House event, there is food, the quantities are only rivaled by the annual Thanksgiving potluck feast. Hub members labor for hours in the kitchen preparing all sorts of foods that, in the words of Jamie Lee Josselyn, "make you want to curl up with a blanket" - from stews to soups and cocoa to cider. Needless to say, by evening's end, everyone is contently stuffed.

Before the massive food consumption comes the readings. Volunteers are allowed to read any genre - their work or someone else's - so long as it has a wintry aura. Over the years, hub members have read an eclectic range of pieces to put everyone into a "mind of winter." In 2006, Kenny Goldsmith delivered a rambling reading from his new book The Weather, stringing together Philadelphia radio winter weather reports for over seven minutes. The same year, each reader introduced the next by pronouncing and translating a different Eskimo word for "snow." And in 2005, Jamie Lee and Phil Sandick took a quick break from the winter theme to honor Al's 20th anniversary since signing his contract to teach at Penn by generating 20 "random" words one can make with the letters in "Alan J. Filreis."

However, it would not truly be the Mind of Winter without the traditional reading and analysis of "The Snow Man." Initially only recited and discussed by Al, the poem is now interpreted as a group, with each person receiving some word or phrase to decode - similar to how Al teaches Dickinson poems at Writers House on the Road events. Thus, it seems only fitting that in summarizing this favorite Writers House tradition, I offer analysis of "The Snow Man" through past Mind of Winter celebrations.

The Snow Man
Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Before delving into the poem's text, Al often informs the audience that a book has been written solely about this poem, declaring it Buddhist as it discusses wiping your mind clean and realizing that the "imagination is most alive at the end of imagination." While the writing clearly sounds Zen, this was not Stevens' direct intent. Moreover, Al classified "The Snow Man" as a meta-poem, as it is a poem about all the poems that create metaphors for wintriness.

From there, we begin with the title: "The Snow Man." As Nick Montfort points out, the words "snow" and "man" have been separated. Stevens is not talking about Frosty with coal eyes and a carrot nose; he is describing a man of the snow - a snowy man.

This snow man...must have a mind of winter, which Jill Ivey describes as a "presence, awareness, and disposition toward winter." In other words, Stevens is really saying one must have a mind "for" winter. By having this mind of winter, one can then regard - or as Jim translates, "respect and recognize... to see and to process" - wintry things. Moreover, as Jamie Lee points out, a one-word "snowman" is not capable of regarding such things as the pine-trees crusted with snow while a two-word "snow man" can regard.

Kenny offers the most humorous explanation of being cold a long time likening the feeling to an ice cream headache where one experiences such an intense brain freeze that they become numb to everything else and behold only the cold. Speaking of behold, Anna Levett says the word is similar to saying "to have all these things." One of these things is not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. This alludes to Al's earlier idea that this is a meta-poem. In reality, the wind is not miserable; other poets only perceive it as miserable.

Moving towards the poem's conclusion, Sam Donsky says that nothing himself compares "physical presence with inner thoughts," as the emptiness of consciousness is like a "snowman." Arielle Brousse explains that the "snow man" not only refuses, but now cannot see misery - beholding nothing that is not there, just what is there. Ironically, as Peter Schwarz points out, the no thing that Stevens speaks of is not truly nothingness, because the nothingness is something in itself. Or, as Tom Devaney so mathematically put it, nothing plus nothing equals something, which is nothing, which is really something; it is a nothingness that exists as something, not simply an absence.