B.J. Leggett

B.J. Leggett: On "The Snow Man"

One of the most frequently cited of the early poems of epistemology, "The Snow Man" (CP, 9) asks whether a world could remain over if point of view were canceled or what the features of a perspectiveless world might he. "The Snow Man" has been cited in support of any number of disparate interpretations of Stevens, although it has most frequently been given a realist reading, as an "affirmation of primal reality" (Litz, 100) or a "'plain reality' which harbors no mystical . . . element" (Leonard and Wharton, 65). In an influential early essay J. Hillis Miller identified the poem's "nothing" with being and argued that for Stevens nothingness is the underlying reality, "the source and end of everything" (Poetry of Being, 155). In Paul Bové's more recent Heideggerian reading the poem is said to record the process by which its speaker "sees the primordiality of Being-in-the-World" and learns that "he is ontologically identical with the other insofar as they are both part of 'what-is' existing in and by virtue of 'nothing'" (Destructive Poetics, 191). Against Miller and Bové I will argue that the "nothing" of the poem may be read with less strain as Nietzsche's featureless becoming, the ground upon which we construct our worlds. . . .

The spare form of the poem evidently invites us to fill in its blank spaces with our own conceptions even as it indirectly warns us (in my Nietzschean reading) that the only mind that could match up with it perfectly would be a blank mind free of preconceptions, which would then comprehend nothing. This is not because the text would disappear any more than the landscape of the poem does--its presence is not i9n question--but because of the poem's implication that the reader, like "the listener, who listens in the snow," can make distinctions, identify features, "behold" the text meaningfully only through perspective, point of view. To state this in a more positive light--as a truly Nietzschean text, the poem is both an affirmation and a denial--we may say that the poem invites the imposition of its readers' perspectives since its epistemology denies that in the absence of perspective there can be any reading of a text or a landscape that produces anything other than "nothing."

For fourteen of its fifteen lines 'The Snow Man" appears to hold a very different epistemology. It suggests an operation by which a perceiver might truly behold a winter landscape. He "must have a mind of winter"; he must "have been cold a long time"; he must not "think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind. . . ." He must in short divest himself of any perspective that would interpret the scene. Once he is "nothing himself," devoid of any human perspective, he "beholds / Nothing that is not there," but here, five words from the end, an ideology hidden to this point asserts itself, one that if strictly observed would make problematical the imagery of the first fourteen lines. What he would then behold, the poem concludes, is "the nothing that is." Stripped of all human seeing and conceiving, rendered a part of the winter landscape as a "snow man" with a bare mind that is attuned to the "bare place" in the blank snow, he beholds nothing. Significantly, however, this is a nothing "that is." The poem does not deny the existence of its blank world; it simply assumes that any feature it might exhibit must be imposed on it by the perceiver. A perceiver who willed himself to impose nothing on the blank (if that were possible) would confront only the blank.

At this juncture, however, in the and of the last line ("Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is"), we uncover a disruption that is akin to (but not identical with) the gaps or seams that Pierre Macherey has theorized in texts that incorporate conflicting ideologies. And Macherey's model is of use here primarily in suggesting the manner that literary texts unmask ideologies that in other forms may seem "natural" and hence invisible. The conflict in "The Snow Man" is one that is endemic to perspectivist texts--texts that adopt the implications of point of view as a theme or assume that the words of the text create things that do not exist without the words. Once we are alerted to its presence, it is a conflict that may be found in various forms in Nietzsche's texts, in those of his commentators, and in my own formulations of perspectivism.

The form this contradiction takes in "The Snow Man" is that its desired world of a perspectiveless beholding is given as the perspectival world that is to be surrendered. Or, to state the contradiction more sharply, it is the very world the, man in the snow is asked to obliterate that, he is informed, he will then regard once it has been erased. The poem begins:

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....

But of course we learn eventually that if a mind of winter were achieved, the snowman would not in fact regard pine trees, junipers, or spruces, since these designations are the most elementary examples of human abstraction and classification. Neither would he behold objects that are crusted, shagged, or glittering--all metaphors imposed on the scene. He would not see these objects in the light of a January sun, time and its divisions constituting another human ordering. He would not be aware that the spruces are being observed in the "distant glitter," since the concept of distance assumes a point of view. In brief, the qualities of the scene that interest us, that are described in such a way that they constitute the motive for assuming a particular kind of mental state, are precisely what are lost when this state is realized. The argument of the poem may thus be reduced to this form: in order to realize x, surrender the faculties by which x is realized.

This is not to suggest that the poem is unnecessarily muddled and could have been constructed in such a way as to escape its dilemma. It is not even to suggest that it falls into its trap unwittingly (and here my manner of interpretation differs slightly from Macherey's). My assumption is that the poem directly confronts the ironies of perspectivism, plainly exposing its paradoxes for all to see. . . .

The poem attempts to get rid of a manmade world but its language keeps reasserting what it relinquishes and thereby reveals what a much later text says outright: "the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined" (CP, 503). . . .

We might then ask: how are e to understand a vision of the uninterpreted nothing the poem seems intent on giving us if we must read it always as an interpreted something? And to take the argument back a step, how can we know such a poem's intent? If it asks us to understand in a way that is inaccessible to us, how are we to recognize even the nature of its requests? And would not such considerations guarantee that "The Snow Man" has never been understood? These questions raise the issue of whether any truly perspectivist text--because of its assumptions about the nature of understanding--could ever be understood on its own terms. If we take "The Snow Man" on its own terms, I would suggest, our only "understanding" could be comparative, in relation to different texts by Stevens and others. Our understanding of all texts is, in this broad and perhaps trivial sense, intertextual; we interpret texts in their relations to or in their differences from other texts. . . .

"The Snow Man" at least implicitly makes the same claim that nothing in the world has any intrinsic features of its own. But if that is the case, bow does the poem expect us to understand such a featureless world? The poem does not go on to suggest overtly that each thing is constituted solely through its interrelations with, and differences from, everything else, but that in fact is the way it defines its vision of "the nothing that is'"--by setting it against a view that projects human qualities onto the landscape, that hears "misery in the sound of the wind." Similarly, we may say that "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" assumes that the blackbird has no intrinsic features of its own, that each way of looking at it defines it, and, we now see, that each way of looking at it is understood in its difference from every other way. To apply Nietzsche's textual metaphor to these poems about the nature of interpretation, we could say that they must describe their worlds intertextually, characterizing each interpretation (of a text that is itself unknowable) as it differs from another. "Thirteen Ways" gives us a set of interpretations that "mean" in their differences; "The Snow Man" implies that we can have a sense of the primal text from which interpretations are derived by thinking of it in opposition to the interpretations themselves, the texts we create and project onto it. If all our interpretations were erased, what remained would be the text itself, except of course the metaphor falls apart at this point, since the assumption of the poem is that the text would be blank if its interpretations were erased., and a blank text is a form of the contradiction (to posit nothing as something) that haunts all strict formulations of perspectivism.

"The Snow Man" raises issues such as the one above--that is, by what mode may perspectivist texts be understood? how may they imagine a world without imagination? how do they escape their own textuality?--because it unmasks so successfully perspectivism's internal conflicts.

Excerpted from a longer analysis in Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext. Copyright © 1992 by Duke University Press.

B.J. Leggett: On "Anecdote of the Jar"

Although other sounds are more numerous, round is what we hear as it imposes itself on the poem:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,

And round it was, upon a hill.

It made the slovenly wilderness

Surround that hill.


The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild.

The jar was round upon the ground

And tall and of a port in air.

Just as the sound of round appears to dominate the poem once we fix on it---that is, once we read from a perspective that concentrates on roundness--so too does our understanding that the jar orders the wilderness depend on our adopting momentarily the point of view of the jar. The jar orders the wilderness by interpreting it from its own perspective, by imposing its own shape, making the wilderness surround it. And one must note here that the wilderness as a whole is not ordered, only the edge that has been made round (given form) by surrounding the jar. That is, the order imposed by the jar is a perspectival order. From the point of view of the jar, the wilderness is no longer wild, alien; it has been given a shape familiar to the jar (the only shape it knows or needs to know, to paraphrase another text on a jar). But to adopt any perspective other than that of the jar is to see that the wilderness is in no real sense changed; it is to recognize the arbitrary quality of the ordering, as the poem eventually does.

The issue of point of view is clearlv central to the poem, as Frank Lentricchia has recently noted, although Lentricchia's own perspective--he wants to read it as an anti-imperialist anecdote--does not allow him to pursue the issue to its conclusion. He writes that point of view in "Anecdote of the Jar" is mainly "panoramic," but at two crucial points limited. At first we view the world "according to a jar, refusing to keep its proud sense of its own well-formed self to itself, smugly taking itself as the distributing point of order and sole topographical coordinate: we see the wilderness forced out of itself into order." At the end "we experience the point of view of the wilderness in the sense that the panoramic speaker takes the side of the wilderness" (10). This is also the side Lentricchia takes. He argues that the old point of controversy--is the poem for art or for nature?-- disappears "when we note that [Stevens] lets nature get the last word by characterizing the autonomous jar of art, at the end of the poem, as an absence of nature." Nature is "maternal, creative, pliant," while the jar is "inflexible, hard," a "receptacle that doesn't receive and from which nothing emerges." Lentricchia suggests as well that the poem does not achieve coherence on its own terms; it asks us to go outside the text for an understanding of its implications: "Formalists must all sooner or later come to the grievous conclusion about "Anecdote of the Jar" that the aged Ezra Pound came to about his Cantos: it will not cohere" (10). Whether or not a poem coheres depends in large measure on the way we opt to read it. In my reading of "Anecdote of the Jar" Lentricchia's brand of incoherence, which arises from the absence of a political context, is of less importance than the incoherence that arises from the poem's epistemological and aesthetic ideologies.

"We'd better look harder at point of view," Lentricchia writes of the poem, but he chooses to ignore its most crucial perspective, that of the "I" who initiates the action. He finds that "this is an anecdote that does not, apparently, centrally involve the human actor who places the jar" (7), and, in truth, the poem's first line--"I placed a jar in Tennessee"--has never been sufficiently emphasized. To put it another way, the speaker's perspective on the opposition of order and chaos needs to be uncovered, which also means that we need to be more careful in our phrasing of what actually happens in the poem. To speak of the jar's "refusing to keep its proud sense of its own well-formed self to itself," to accuse it of being smug, or to say that the wilderness is "forced out of itself into order"--these are products of Lentricchia's own point of view and not sanctioned by the poem itself. Neither does the poem sanction the question of whether it is for the jar or for the wilderness. All of these issues are a result of personifying the jar as human intelligence, forgetting that it is itself the result of an arbitrary imposition of order and that another ordering principle lies behind it. The first line of the poem modifies our entire reading if we recognize that the speaker takes full responsibility for this arbitrary imposition of order. He places the jar, imposes a "geometrical simplification" onto the void, notes the domination of any center of power, but, being more mobile and more sophisticated than a jar, also notes that from another perspective the jar's ordering power is illusory. The wilderness is not physically changed; it is not literally "forced out of itself into order," as Lentricchia claims, any more than a text is physically changed by a new interpretation. The jar "made" the wilderness surround it only in an interpretation that adopts for a moment its point of view. Interpretation here means the imposition of sense and value, these being reduced in this case to roundness.

To ignore the interpretation that lies behind the jar's interpretation and initiates it is to be surprised by what has appeared to many readers a sudden and arbitrary shift in point of view. In the third and last quatrain the speaker says of the jar's ordering power

It took dominion everywhere.

The jar was gray and bare.

It did not give of bird or bush,

Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Readers who have assumed that the poem is for the jar against the disorderly wilderness may feel that the speaker's attention to the jar's sterility is not sufficiently prepared for, or, like Lentricchia, who is for the wilderness, they may feel that the poem does not cohere. But the point of view that controls the poem, that comprehends both the jar and the wilderness, does not blunder into incoherence. It recognizes instead the ironies of perspectivism--that it is only through the adoption of a willful and arbitrary point of view that one is able to interpret a world too slovenly (not only "slipshod," but "of low character" and thus, like the giant, "uncultivated" or "uncivilized") to provide its own meaning, and, simultaneously, that the perspective through which the world is given form is not itself a part of that world. The jar, as the speaker's form of artifice, is utterly alien to the world of bird and bush, which is to say (as does "The Snow Man") that any order, any interpretation of the Tennessee wilderness would be an imposition and therefore not a true depiction of that world as it is. To follow the development of the poem we must understand that it reflects the speaker's point of view, which exceeds that of the jar and identifies with it only momentarily. It is for this reason that Lentricchia is, I think, mistaken in arguing that the preposition of in the title "means not 'about' but something like 'belonging to,' as if the jar could speak, as if the poem were really about a story that a jar might tell about itself" (8).

Against Lentricchia I would argue that the poem is neither for nor against the jar, and that a political context that includes our forefathers' slaughter of the Indians who lived in the Cherokee village for which Tennessee is named is not particularly helpful in our understanding of the wilderness. It is a poem primarily about perspective and interpretation, which come to mean very much the same thing. It is aware of the dilemma it dramatizes--that perspective is both necessary and untrue--but it cannot escape another dilemma inherent in its own perspectivist assumptions, which we recognize once the speaker's point of view is no longer identical with that of the jar. The poem ceases to cohere with the line "The jar was gray and bare," for at this point the speaker recognizes the jar's alien status. It is like "nothing else in Tennessee" since it is static, not "natural," incapable of change and generation. To make this distinction between the jar and the wilderness, however, the speaker must assume that we can know the Tennessee wilderness as it is, that it presents itself to us, in Macherey's suggestive metaphors, as "an open fruit" or as "a discourse already constituted" (6), and not as something whose only meaning is that given to it by the jar. The first two stanzas of the poem are however based on the assumption that reality will be known only as it is interpreted by such a geometrical simplification as the jar represents, and that to interpret is to create according to one's own sense and values. If the description of the jar's effect on the wilderness is to be taken seriously, the speaker must also impose his sense and values on that which he identifies with the living world antithetical to the artificial jar. And we now see that what was presented as disorder was by necessity already ordered from the beginning. By associating the wilderness with a particular region, Tennessee, by characterizing it as sprawling, slovenly, by referring to its vegetation and animal life, the persona had given form to that which he then set against form. And in the end, by asserting the jar's alien presence in a readily apprehended world of bird and bush, the instigator of this epistemological exercise unmasks a naive empiricism that lies behind the more official perspectivist stance of the poem. The first two stanzas give us a world that is "fully made," while the last gives us one that is "fully found." If the character of the Tennessee wilderness is a given, if it can be known as it is, then the ordering power of artifice over unordered nature, seemingly the point of the anecdote, is made unconvincing. The poem, that is, has it both ways--the character of reality is a creation of perspectival seeing and ordering; the character of reality as a given exposes the artificiality of any given perspective.

From Early Stevens: The Nietzchean Intertext. Copyright © 1992 by Duke University Press.

B.J. Leggett: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

"Thirteen Ways" makes explicit what "Of the Surface of Things" indicates more indirectly--that a thoroughgoing perspectivism finds its ideal expression in aphorism. Aphorism's resistance to definitive meaning, its emphasis on the sense of things, on interpretation--all these in turn depend on a form that dictates the notion of a plurality of views that assume no larger context. Aphorism proclaims in its form, as does "On the Road Home," that "There are many truths, / But they are not parts of a truth" (CP, 203).

In order to give this sense of the multiplicity of seeing, the poem must isolate each perspective while indicating that they are all directed toward the same general subject. (A collection of aphorisms on a variety of subjects would not make quite so emphatic the poem's point of showing perspectivism without saying anything about it.) "Thirteen Ways," like "Of the Surface of Things," must therefore avoid a consistent style that might lead to the view that it is merely a set of observations of blackbirds, a view of things as they are rather than as they are perceived. A particular passage, say

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one

must be connected only through the presence of blackbirds with what comes before ("The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime") and what comes after:

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

Neither style nor convention (stanza or line lengths, rhythm, etc.) nor "theme" pulls these passages together into anything approaching sustained and coherent thought or feeling, although the stanzas have been made to form something closer to a traditionally structured poem by countless New Critical analyses operating under the assumption that a central poem by a major poet must have a formal coherence. Speaking of a poem that presents the same formal problems, "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," Helen Vendler argues that "if we believe in Stevens' good faith we must assume he thought it a viable whole" (66), and a generation of readers sought for ways to save Stevens from the charge of bad faith. Thus M. L. Rosenthal writes of "Thirteen Ways" that its stanzas "are woven together along two main strands of thought." One of these is "the blackbird as a symbol of the inseparability of life and death in nature," and the other, more vaguely defined, is "the poet's attitude toward his symbol" (128). The possibility that the form of the poem itself implies the absence of an overarching unity in which each look at the blackbird finds its place would have been a difficulty for several decades of Stevens criticism.


[Leggett quotes Stanzas V-VIII]

There is, as Coyle suggests, a sense of finality in these stanzas, but there is also the sense that each is only "For a moment final, in the way / The thinking of art seems final when / The thinking of god is smoky dew" (CP, 168). This passage fromThe Man with the Blue Guitar also draws the connection I have been pressing between the absence of being (or the postulation of becoming) and the adoption of perspectivism. It defines almost exactly the paradoxical effect--a finality that proclaims simultaneously the impossibility of finality--that aphorism imparts to 'Thirteen Ways."

Each of the stanzas above may of course be interpreted in a conventional manner. Stanza V, for example, opposes two kinds of beauty, one distinct and the other suggestive, that the blackbird's whistling is made to illustrate, and Stanza VI observes the way an object like a blackbird is defined by (and in turn defines) its surrounding. What is unconventional here is that the poem does not allow us readily to apply what we have seen or understood in one stanza to our reading of the next, since the linguistic function of the one "constant" in the poem, the blackbird, keeps shifting. It may be a part of a poetic figure in one stanza, a more or less literal reference in the next. The "meaning" of Stanza V thus has only a negligible bearing on a reading of Stanza VI; its "truth" is confined to the moment in which it is sensed or read. Only through such a form could the poem demonstrate its assumptions (in Robert Rehder's words) "that each act of vision re-creates reality and that every perception is a metaphor" (59). Without pursuing a Nietzschean interpretation, Rehder nevertheless arrives at. the same point, which recognizes the two fundamental assumptions "Thirteen Ways" is built on--each sense of the world is a new seeing, confined to its own unique perspective, and each has its origin in the perceiver (i.e., is a metaphor). The poem illustrates Nietzsche's view that the world "has not one sense behind it, but hundreds of senses"' (WP, II, 13), or, to state it in the visual figure of "Thirteen Ways," "There are many kinds of eyes. . . . therefore there must be many kinds of 'truths,' and consequently there can be no truth" (WP, II, 50). The contradiction that Nietzsche's statement entails--the assertion that there can be no truth offered as what appears to be the truth--is, we may note, appropriately mitigated by the fact that it occurs in a series of aphorisms, which tends both to highlight it--to emphasize its exaggerated profundity--and to neutralize it, to render it "just one more truth, one more / Element in the immense disorder of truths" (CP, 216).

'Thirteen Ways" is generally content to suggest its "truth" through its form rather than to assert it directly. The closest it comes to including its implied perspectivism as a theme is in Stanza IX: ''When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles," which is a way of saying that the world contains not one sense but many. Each sense of the blackbird defines an intelligible circle, the "meaning" of which exists only until the blackbird crosses its horizon. "We measure the world by these horizons," Nietzsche writes in The Dawn qf Day, "within which our senses confine each of us"; thus, "a concentric circle is drawn round every being. . ." (122). Stanza IX creates a figure for the aphoristic quality of the poem as a whole, a series of circles containing a blackbird or blackbirds, each of which achieves a momentary (but not therefore trivial) meaning.

Beverly Coyle believes that "the early Stevens sought for aphoristic techniques to make [his] tropes sound as fragmentary--as 'trivial'--as possible." She writes: "Skepticism is the philosophic basis for this particularly terse aphoristic style through which Stevens implies that there is no assertion that he can endorse with complete seriousness" (215). But this is to ignore a distinction between skepticism and perspectivism that is crucial for Stevens' poetry. The recognition that each sense of the blackbird is not a part of a larger whole does not trivialize it. To the contrary, texts such as "On the Road Home" (CP, 203) that assert multiple truths in place of one enveloping truth also assume that one's current perspective is enlarged rather than lessened by this insight:

It was when I said,

"There is no such thing as the truth." 

That the grapes seemed fatter,

The fox ran out of his hole. . . .

Far from leading to decline, the pluralist view here sharpens every sense of a world that is not less real because each perception of it is unique to the perceiver at that moment of perception, and the poem suggests again Nietzsche's view that "plurality in interpretation is a sign of strength" because it does not rob the world of its "disquieting and enigmatical nature" (WP, II, 101).

It is important to recognize that "Thirteen Ways" and the other aphoristic poems in early Stevens are not, strictly speaking, expressions of skepticism. They never question the reality of their world, only its accessibility to a universally true or stable description. One may say of the epistemological assumption of "Thirteen Ways" what Nehamas says of Nietzsche's thought, that it is not skeptical since it "does not deny the reality of things"; it does not "doubt that the world exists." It doubts only "that the existence of the world requires the existence of a description that is true of it from every possible point of view, a description that would depict it in itself as it really is" (83-84). It is not the existence of the world of "Thirteen Ways" that is at issue, only the possibility of a definitive description of it that does not originate in the sensibility of the perceiver. And aphorism in early Stevens, as in Nietzsche, is a way of depicting the resulting multiplicity of senses without discrediting or trivializing any particular depiction.


Excerpted from a longer analysis in Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext. Copyright © 1992 by Duke University Press.