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Emptiness and Wallace Stevens

I am interested in how emptiness shows up in Western culture, particularly in poetry, philosophy and music.  Today I wanted to take a close look at a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man,” and discuss to what degree what he is talking about in this poem is akin to Buddhist emptiness.  Also, I would love to hear from you about other poems or philosophies or song lyrics you think of when you think of emptiness.  What kinds of cultural reference points, besides the obvious Buddhist texts and teachings, help shape your understanding of emptiness?
Here is the poem, “The Snow Man,” one of the ten most anthologized American poems ever.
The Snow Man
by 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.
In this poem, Stevens gives us a clear and vivid representation of his experience of emptiness.  He calls emptiness “the nothing,” and my first thought concerns the difference between a so-called Western sense of existential nothingness versus the Buddhist sense of a luminous emptiness.  This problem—nothing vs. emptiness—seems to come up all the time.  My inspiration for this essay is a certain linguistic dissatisfaction with that word “emptiness”, so I feel the need to investigate more closely Stevens’s diction.  Is he talking about Nagarjuna’s emptiness or a more existential nothingness?

Stevens begins “The Snow Man” with the third personal singular pronoun One.  Immediately any clear sense of subject—either the poet-narrator or the eponymous snowman himself—is submerged into the objective, impersonality of the pronoun one, a pronoun used to represent any person representing people in general.  Every reader, every individual, everyone is the subject of the poem.
“One must have a mind of winter” says Stevens.  One must have a cold, precise, disciplined mind: this imperative is the poem’s subject.  In his essay on Wallace Stevens, Pat Righelato elucidates how Stevens is instructing us to see reality clearly in this poem; “‘The Snow Man’ is a rejection of the idea that nature is the vehicle of human splendors and miseries; rather, the creative consciousness must discipline itself to a condition of wintriness in order to apprehend without embellishment.”
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
The poem’s title and this first of five stanzas set the tone, wintry and difficult; the object-scene, (ostensibly) a snowman in the snow; and the subject, a certain discipline of mind that leads to clear-seeing.  Stevens continues:
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…
“Behold” is a privileged word in Stevens’s lexicon.  For Stevens, to behold means to see clearly.  Stevens’s notion of beholding gives purpose to life: we must learn to see clearly.  And in this way, to learn our true nature.  There is nothing vague about Stevens’s prescription.  Rather, he is demonstrating in this poem a definite way to discipline the creative consciousness.  To see the world without embellishment, as Righelato expresses it.  To see the world without self-projections, as the Buddhists would say.  To see the world and its objects and its inhabitants as they really are.
If the aim is to see the world clearly, without unnecessary embellishments or self-projections, what is it that gets in the way of this clear-seeing?  Our selves, our desires, our emotions, etc.  But also, in a word, language.  Language covers all.  Anthony Whiting writes, “The pine trees are crusted with snow; the junipers are shagged with ice, and the spruces are rough in the distant glitter. The landscape that is seen is the landscape that the mind beautifully ‘decorates’ with language.”  Even laying language on our experience obstructs clear-seeing, which is beyond words.  Therefore, Stevens moves from this ornate, descriptive diction to an aural mode, from an object in space (the snow on trees), to an object in time (the sound of the wind):
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Notice how the poem is one long sentence, building its meaning by accumulation.  The subject, the first word, the one that is everyone, is, through Stevens’s patient enjambment, slowly being forgotten, or more specifically, being merged with the object of description, namely, the snowman in the snow, or more precisely, the space around the snowman.  Three stanzas deep into the poem, Stevens has not written a single descriptive line about the actual snowman.  Does he have a carrot nose?  A row of black coat buttons down his chest?  A top hat?  This more classical description—the writer’s foremost tool—is eschewed for a more subtle explication of the functioning of consciousness itself, of the intersection between perceiving subject and perceived object, of the merging of the two into one, that is, of their coemergence.  Stevens progressively pulls the camera back on his scene: we move from the boughs of the pine-trees to junipers shagged with ice to the spruces in the distant sun—all the way to the sound of the wind and the sound of a few leaves.  This ever-widening perspective reaches its apogee in the fourth stanza:
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
The instruction is to widen our perspective, to rest our awareness on the whole of being.  And, critically, when perceiving the world, no matter how wintry the scene may be, not to project our own emotions, for example, our personal misery, onto the scene.  In short, in order to see clearly, keep the self out of it.  Stevens encourages his reader to be wise and disciplined enough—to be cold enough—to simply hear the rain and not attribute to it our own private pain.
This fourth stanza speaks of a wind, a wind that dissolves boundaries between inner and outer: the wind of the land, the empty wind of the outside world, “that is blowing in the same bare place for the listener,” the wind of the person, the empty wind of the inner world.  This wind points to the emptiness, and the poem ends in a meditation thereupon:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Anthony Whiting keenly interprets these last few lines: “To behold nothing that is not there is to behold reality stripped of all that the self attributes to it. Since misery is not part of nature but something that the self adds to it, to behold nothing that is not there suggests that it is possible not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.”
All reality, all phenomena is emptiness.  The snowman and the scene, the listener and his mind—nothing, empty.  What remains is only beholding, only clear-seeing.  This clear-seeing, and only this, allows the listener (not even the seer at this point) to behold emptiness itself, “the nothing that is.”  Stevens’s pseudo-subject, the listener, the universal one, simply beholds—fulfilling T.S. Eliot’s wish to cultivate the intelligence that might “see the object as it really is”—one beholds, in the most profound sense of the word, “nothing that is not there,” one behold reality as it really is, without embellishments, without self-projections.  One beholds.
“The Snow Man” is a chilling poem, a valid poem, and a perspicacious expression of a man’s experience of emptiness.  Whatever name it goes by—emptiness or the nothing—Stevens is writing about emptiness in one way or another.  A friend of mine, Juan-Carlos Castro provided me with a critique of Steven’s view of emptiness, saying that in order to see-clearly, one need not to try not to project our emotions onto nature, but rather “to simply let go and let be, to arrive at absence with presence: the tricky project of conscious, embodied non-involvement.”  There is something to this critique.  What do you think? Is there too much existential nothingness in Wallace’s experience of emptiness?  Must emptiness necessarily be so so chilling, so austere, so cold?   Furthermore, perhaps Steven’s instructions on how to perceive emptiness are still too much, well, instruction.  Perhaps one could “simply let go and let be.”  But then what would that mean?
The fact is Stevens, a Western poet and insurance salesmen writing in the early twentieth century (not a guru in 11th century Tibet), had some kind of direct experience of emptiness, then tried to share his experience in words, in poetry.  I believe his experience of emptiness, as well as similar experiences of other poets and writers,  is worth talking about.  And in this way, we can talk about our own experiences and our own understandings of a difficult truth.

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posted February 27, 2009 at 2:48 pm

I think you would also find interesting Stevens’s poem “Anecdote of a Jar.” It ties to many of the same themes and focuses on the role of the artist, or more accurately ART, to create a kind of order and meaning in the world.

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Ellen Scordato

posted February 27, 2009 at 3:32 pm

I like these kinds of investigations.
Certainly human beings have had experiences of emptiness outside of 11th c. Tibet, and yeah, I love to talk about them. We each will have our own experiences of emptiness, but the emptiness is the same. Our expressions of it are all different. Stevens’s is cold; another poet’s might not be.
I like to think that whatever color or temperature or language we give to emptiness comes not so much FROM us as from the emptiness. It’s all in there. It’s like the rainbow inherent in the white light, but like prisms, we each refract it a little bit differently.
Maybe we are not putting anything in emptiness that is not already there.
To borrow the language of color theory, our consciousness may be a sort of subtractive model of reality, rather than additive.
Wallace Stevens here seems to be arguing against the objective correlative and the pathetic fallacy. I’m down with that.
And I have to say ” ‘The Snowman’ is a chilling poem” cracks me up. I love it.

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Greg Zwahlen

posted February 27, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Whenever i look up
“enjambment” in the
dictionary because i forgot what it means
i’m reminded that it doesn’t mean what
a word that sounds like that
ought to mean.

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Rose Marie Raccioppi

posted February 27, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Poetry provides a means to express, resolve and empty one of obstructions to self and TRUTH. And so …
A Saturday Before Sunset
No earrings, bracelets, necklaces or rings need she bear
Yet fully adorned and crowned in God’s loving care
Free of shackles and constraint of body and soul
Within all treasures and a found goal
She honors life in all its glory
Each moment now a complete story
And when she records with pen a line
Awakened and felt is the sublime
Who pray tell is she
She is the I introduced to the me
And in this moment of quiet reflection
She sees all of nature in full perfection
Bamboo leaves such grace of green
Shades and hues held by each leaf seen
Touched and moved by wind and light
Leaves in shadow leaves held bright
The quiver of the growing leaf, the strength of the rooted tree
Suspended, held and free
Running waters flow, a chorus of crickets, branches all a sway
A bird, a butterfly in luminous array
The warmth of the summer setting sun her hand does feel
And what is so distant is now and real
At a round wood crafted table she taken to rest
And marvels when catching sight of a bird returning to nest
An airplane above a distant roar
She thinks of how man sets himself to soar
Children’s voices at play are heard
Accompanied by the song of a songbird
No greater or lesser can this presence be
The I known here, now, in this moment to me
The deep breath of Being in great abound
In a Saturday before sunset the I has found.
Rose Marie Raccioppi

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Rose Marie Raccioppi

posted February 27, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Poetry has been and continues to be a calling to self and so expressed in a daily post of poetry and the arts:
do visit…

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Paul Griffin

posted March 2, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Thank you all for your responses.
@Ellen Scordato, yes, the pathetic fallacy is a drag. For example, many people seem to think that penguins are like humans these days. This kind of confusion bothers me because the pathetic fallacy (and lazy animist thinking in general) is linked to what I see as the central philosophical obstacle of our great democracy: a certain inability or unwillingness, in our craze for utter equality, to recognize gradations of consciousness, or dare I say, degrees of enlightenment. Ken Wilber writes about this problem.
As for consciousness-as-subtractive, yes, indeed. In my novel-in-progress, I am writing a character who has ADHD. What I have learned about the ADHD mind is that it is all-too-open, all-too-non-subtractive (or “filtering” is the word the psychologists seem to prefer). This kind of mind fascinates me, and this kind of problem—the all-too-open mind—makes me think of the middle way. We want to open up our consciousnesses as much as possible, but not so much as to make us crazy. Though, often I do hanker for the luminous madness itself, for the utter opening of the gateway, for the throwing open of the windows forever.

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Rose Marie Raccioppi

posted March 2, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Having had both the privilege and the challenge of working with those deemed ADHD or ADD for the past twenty six years in private practice, I have gained an expansive perspective. The idea of “the all-too-open mind” is subject to relative judgments and expectations from a needing to be sequential, orderly world.

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Chad Gallion

posted January 14, 2011 at 8:16 am

I see this poem as a meditation on emptiness, as most people have already noted. I think Stevens hits on a crucial ambiguity of emptiness: emptiness is itself an idea. I think this poem shows how a person must balance his/her own emotions with the hard cold facts of nature… doesn’t want to get too caught up in the self, and yet, to not have any emotion or desire is also an illusion, and could lead to being inhuman.
So, we must be aware that we are the creators of our own world, and we must take responsibility for this. In other words, to a large degree, we create our world with our imagination, but we must use caution and balance this with the facts of nature. There is a lot of paradox here, and it revolves around one’s own conception of the “self”.
Recently I saw an episode of six feet under, the “Hitchhiker” episode. The hitchhiker was completely devoid of feeling. I guess you could say he was a psychopath. But you could also say he was empty.
This has made me think a great deal about emptiness. Because if one accepts complete emptiness, then this hitchhiker is not cruel or evil, he is just a person acting in the world, unattached to anything. But maybe I’m wrong, he’s not really empty, he’s attached to something that gives him great pain, and he inflicts this pain on others.
This makes me think back to my first point, which is the fact that it is difficult (if not impossible?) to remove ourselves from ideas: even emptiness is an idea. And I think Stevens is wondering, what would it be like if we could? It’s the ambiguity of how one conceives of the self….it depends on one’s imagination. Culture is full of literature– words. It is up to the imagination to make connections and find meaning to these symbols. And I would argue that even when one lets go of all ideas, and does not “try” to become empty, but just “is”, that this is still an idea, and one conditioned by the self. We cannot escape illusion. And do we really want to? Life is contradiction at it’s core. To be pure, in a sense, is to be dead. Dead as winter.
One must use the imagination to forget the self. This is the paradox Stevens is exploring, in my opinion.

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posted June 1, 2014 at 10:07 pm

What then, do you believe, is the “mind of winter”?

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