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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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