Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Snow Man

"The Snow Man" number 61 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master.
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.

Not being skilled in poetry maybe hinder me here. Can you help?

This "And, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." is wonderfully Zen. It reminds me of Vimalakirti and Manjusri getting into it in the Vimalakirti Sutra.

Then, the Licchavi Vimalakirti saw the crown prince Manjusri and addressed him thus: "Manjusri! Welcome, Manjusri! You are very welcome! There you are, without any coming. You appear, without any seeing. You are heard, without any hearing."

Manjusri declared, "Householder, it is as you say. Who comes, finally comes not. Who goes, finally goes not. Why? Who comes is not known to come. Who goes is not known to go. Who appears is finally not to be seen.

Any error or confusion created by my commentary on Miniatures of a Zen Master
is solely a reflection of my own delusion and ignorance. Any merit
generated by this activity is solely the result of Aitken Roshi's clear
teaching and is dedicated to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout
space and time.


  1. Yikes! I am happy to have discovered this poem.

    I come from a climate in which it is said "it never rains," and moved, in my 40's, to the Canadian border. There ensued five of the most beautiful years of my life in which no day was like any other day. I daily walked through the forest to get to work. I'm a city girl, but the trees became individuals, became my friends.

    Not having been raised in a place with winter, I watched, and experienced, with very few preconceived notions - and those notions, which were mainly literary or cinematic, were shattered the first few weeks I lived in winter. Every day was new. Far from fighting winter, I found the forest expected it, almost greeting winter as an opportunity to rest. I sat in my hillside home and watched the wind blow through the trees. The trees bending and leaning, here a branch, there a bough, sometimes just a twig and sometimes the whole tree swaying, and now the nearby trees, as if there is some kind of great tree dance being orchestrated and all the trees know how to do the dance, stoically and with tree-determination, because, after all, this is what it is like to be a tree. And the snow sits, nestled in the crook of the branches, until the point in the dance when all the snow is supposed to fall, and, on cue, all the trees let loose their snow and all the snow falls gracefully and truly, because, after all, that is what it is like to be snow. And now that cold January sun, more brilliant in its inability to warm than any hot August sun, illuminates each and every snow crystal as it winds and wends its way to the great pool of snow on the ground - and all of this great pool, too, is illuminated. Of course, the snow, in its falling, exposes the shape of the wind whose brilliance is secret, and right there for every one to see, and the sun plays its part in this dance because, after all, that is what it is like to be sun.

    Who is to say what is mattering here? Is the sun stirring up wind currents and knocking down snow? Or is the Great North Woods participating in a dance that really does extend round the globe, yes, to the place in which "it never rains."

    Wallace Stevens has said it all in just a few stanzas. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment.

    NPR had Jay Keyser comment on this poem and he declared it the best poem in the English language "bar none". Very high praise indeed. Here is the link to the audio. 3min.

    Here is another recording.

    Here is yet another. This one read by the author and with a short video.

    Good stuff.