For Stevens, the imagination is not merely a way of creating but also a way of knowing, and “The Snow Man” is a self-consciously paradoxical attempt to imagine the absence of imagination by trying to capture in words a reality that is in essence wordless and by trying to put into human terms a nature that is in essence inhuman. It is significant that the speaker refers to “a mind of winter,” for the one thing he cannot deliver is winter in itself. However much he tries to avoid the pitfalls of personification and anthropomorphism, however much he tries “not to think/ Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” he cannot help but posit some connection between the poverty that resides within a mind of winter and the poverty that resides within a landscape of winter. Insofar as “the listener” lives in the prison house of language and is thereby shaped and determined by the preconceptions and values of a given vocabulary, he cannot in reality become nothing himself and cannot behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” He and his audience are relegated to imagining themselves occupying an absolute vantage point from which they are able to see things as they are and thus to see “Nothing that is not there.” Nevertheless, the minute they posit “the nothing that is” and impose philosophical meaning on it (or draw meaning from it), they have entered a realm of imaginative abstraction from which there is no escape. The limits of their language are the limits of their world. Language always adds something that is not there to the nothing that is, and the poem itself is an eloquent demonstration of this insurmountable paradox.
It is no exaggeration to say that the entirety of Wallace Stevens’s corpus is about the mutually dependent and perpetually unstable relationship between imagination and reality. As he reflects in The Necessary Angel (1965), “[T]he imagination loses vitality when it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.” When language fails to adhere to reality, the result is myth—the deceptive and spurious consolations of religion, romanticism, supernaturalism, and the like. When language adheres too closely to reality, the result is naturalism—the dreary determinism and impoverished reductivism of science, materialism, realism, and so on. For Stevens, imagination and reality are interdependent. By providing ideas of order and explanatory fictions, poetry gives a coherence and meaning to the chaos and poverty of human life, lending to it a sense and savour that “the gaunt world of reason” cannot proffer. Creating fictions, Stevens maintains, is the essential gift of the human mind; believing them is its curse. In a sceptical age, poetry must take the place of empty heaven and its hymns, but the material of poetry must be reality, not myth. Poetry, for Stevens, is life’s redemption.
In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (1942), Stevens maintains that a fiction must have three attributes: It must be abstract, it must change, and it must give pleasure. Humankind makes the world manageable by abstraction, a device of economy that prevents one from being overwhelmed by an excess of sensory data. Such simplifications or even falsifications of intellect have obvious survival value and cannot be permanently discarded. Stevens, however, wants to go beyond intellectual abstractions, beyond the dead formulae and prefabricated notions that the gaunt world of fact and reason enshrines. He wants to fabricate his own imaginative abstractions, fictions that will deautomatize ordinary perception and reveal novel and unexpected configurations of experience, configurations that are obscured by stultifying conventions of common sense. Such fictions must change because the world must be continually defamiliarized and reinvented lest these fresh fictions degenerate into stale myths. Moreover, for the poverty of the human condition to be mitigated, such fictions must give pleasure. What Stevens calls the gaiety of language, with its exaltations of the present and its fortuitous integrations, is the only believable substitute for the obsolete joys of heaven.