William Carlos Williams was a noted poet of the modernist school, as was Wallace Stevens. Williams’ poem Paterson includes the following stanza:
—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!
Now, modernism in literature was principally a rejection of the structures and limitations that seemed inherent in poetry as it had been written in ages past. Few events in human history had as profound an effect on the human psyche and on the idealism that preceded it than the bloody and protracted conflagration known then as “the Great War” and today as “World War I.” Many a writer and painter – this educator often thinks in this regard of the works of Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, whose experiences in World War I deeply influenced his artistic vision – was influenced by the senseless carnage that defined that conflict. The cultures and societies that could produce such a tragedy of such an enormous scale could not possibly hope to continue to monopolize the arts, including literature, and the modernist school, which actually had its genesis a few years prior to the start of the war, was deeply informed by its experiences and observations during that tumultuous period.
What does this have to do with Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man, and how does Stevens’ poem relate to the often-exaggerated hyperbole regarding Williams’ line “no ideas but things?” Inasmuch as even Williams apparently failed to grasp the fascination many readers and poets had with this particular stanza, there is a risk in reading too much into Paterson. That said, Williams’ poem has been interpreted as a rejection of the abstract nature of much poetry with its emphasis on concrete concepts. Williams’ poetry, as with Stevens’ The Snow Man, takes an object, rather than an idea, and describes the world around it. It is worth noting that both men were professionals by day, and poets by night. Williams was a medical doctor, and Stevens a lawyer. Both had been raised to appreciate the fundamental necessity of providing for one’s family and earning a decent living in a socially-acceptable profession. Williams, in particular, was influenced by his academic studies and by his profession. Medical students rarely have the luxury of engaging in abstract, fanciful concepts. They are taught to see the human body as it is, rather than as they wish it could be. They are scientists. Williams’ poetry, then, is shorn of the idealistic and abstract. It deals with concrete substances, and that is what we find in Stevens’ poem. But such concrete expressions of reality are not necessarily negative in tone. On the contrary, The Snow Man is a harsh but resonant depiction of the bleakest of seasons. One can read words such as “Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves” without concluding that the author had it in for winter. Few natural phenomena are as routinely beautiful as freshly-fallen snow, and the sense of desolation that one can observe in the woods during winter lends its own magnificence to the surroundings. Stevens has taken, in this poem, the physical characteristics of a season and penned an admiring yet cautious ode to it. The opening lines – “One must have a mind of winter/To regard the frost and the boughs/Of the pine-trees crusted with snow” – reflect the duality of nature, its beauty and its sometimes foreboding effects on the human mind. There is little abstract about The Snow Man. It deals with things: winter, snow, ice, etc. But within its modernist sentiments lies the deepest of philosophical questions. The listener who beholds “nothing that is not there” is a rejection of the abstract, but it is, in its own way, an abstraction. In that, The Snow Man is consistent with William Carlos Williams’ passing sentiment.