Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Snow Man"

"The Snow Man" is one long sentence in five oddly rhymed tercets, crystallized as verse. Like Frost's image of ice melting on a stove, the poem reveals itself as it slides along, warmed dangerously by human touch. The lesson is clear: leave a snow man alone, and it exists for itself, unchanged; touch the snow, and the artifice goes away, as it goes along. An object measures differently in motion than at rest, variously cold and hot: watch it disappear. Instead of the expected iambic opening ("I placed a jar"), the poem begins impersonally, with a tentative trochee, almost spondaic, "One must have a mind of winter." Right away, reverse field, the poem catches us in metric crux ("the trochee's heave," Pound said). A leveling cold serves to brace entry and numb stresses into anapests, even spondaic trochees: "and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow." The lines keep rocking with phonemic upheavals, "junipers-shagged with ice," and "distant glit ter / Of the January sun." A falling dactyl bridges the stanza break, "glitter / Of the," down to the iambic spondee, "same bare place" that leans across the gap "For the listener," who finally "beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." The last dazed line, twelve syllables shagged tetramically like rime ice, or hoarfrost, arrives as the poem's ,"terrible crystal" of negation and rediscovery: an initial trochee, "Nothing," an anapestic spondee, "that is not there," an anapest falling trochaically, "and the nothing," to a final affirmative iamb, "that is." Form is intrinsic rhythmic function: the interruptive patterns of spoken American syntax shoulder against the iambic meter, with errant anapests and trochees stringing out the talk-song, Frost might say, against the more regular metric strictures. A verse line should spring from the resilient strength of natural form, Frost argued for keeping the metric net up, "The straight crookedness of a good walking stick." And what comes of these thick poetics?

"The Snow Man" is an ice-sketched landscape, like Frost's "Desert Places," but its lyrically graced, barren chill leads to more than personal despair. Only the snow man knows himself, the poem knows of itself. Anthropomorphic sentiment, creating a human effigy of snow, must be balanced with the objective knowledge that "misery" plays a fa1se part in this scene. Learn of winter from winter, Basho would say. Pine, juniper, spruce, and leaves rough or "shagged" with snow (that is, "bearded") are just what they are to "a mind of winter." The trees are, after all, evergreens, Vendler notes, and January the "new" year. Imposing summer's loss on the image, a human sense of misery, or worse, the listener feeling "nothing himself," could melt the snow man in elegiac sentiment. Here is where the Other, outside our perceiving self, must be respected as a projection that both is, and is not: ourselves perceiving, Adam on time's seesaw, and a native it as nothing that is. Is is was, time's fall dictates, just as we perceive it. Thus the primitive, or primal Id, literally "it," is never here, but over there—the not-me or Other as a dark Narcissus flitting in the lost, forbidden shadows of consciousness, the singing bear's heart in shadowy silence. In postmodernist alterity, the other brother, Baudelaire's hypocrite lecteur, mirrors the dream ghost of my libido, the me-I-fear, or not-me me at the heart of my perceived being.

So the snow man is our wintry opposite, here, out there. This anti-man translates culturally as the natural or primitive self artifacted, the wild or savage native, disowned, driven down under the veneer of civilization. This distorting sublimation is an autumnal tug on the modern mind, fall eulogist to spring lyricist, especially in Adamic America, where "the poverty of dirt" haunts a "World without Peculiarity." . . .

From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of California.


Title Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Snow Man" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kenneth Lincoln Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Sing With the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999
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