Friday, December 30, 2011

"To and Fro" Zen: Stevens in the Snow

Odd how the language has evolved… here’s a pertinent example: You can be a lyric poet without ever writing lyrics. Moreover, there may be music in your poems even if you are not a musician and know nothing about music at all!

Forty years ago, when I was writing poems regularly--many of them accepted, and published, by some “little magazine”--I read other poets assiduously, and I soon realized my own verbal biases:
I valued wordplay, surprising imagery, simple rhythms, sometimes even old forms and rhyme schemes. I cherished Shakespeare, rejected Wordsworth; chose Donne and Marvell, avoided Byron and Shelley; loved Yeats, admired Frost, thought Wallace Stevens stiff and boringly intellectual.

But recently I took another look at Stevens and realized he was sometimes light and lyric, good fun when not grandly philosophical. Brevity is
occasionally the soul of his wit, with oblique, gnomic statements reminiscent of Zen Buddhist aphorisms, at least as articulated by West-Meets-East Oriented Beat poets like Gary Snyder.

As evidence, and in recognition of the season’s two Januses frozen in midwinter stasis, I offer two brief Stevens poems, the first complete, the other excerpted to make the point cogently…

The Snow Man

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.

* * * * *

from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

No false hope, but no despair--resignation, and a recognition of human alone-ness; so…

Have a good year. It’s yours to create… reclaim… occupy… take back.

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