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Wallace Stevens: 'The Snow Man'

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now in praise of Wallace Stevens. The American poet passed away 50 years ago this year. Commentator and linguist Jay Keyser saves his highest praise for one of Stevens' poems.

JAY KEYSER:

With something as personal as a poem, it's risky making hard and fast judgments. That won't stop me. I declare that Wallace Stevens wrote the best short poem in the English language, bar none, and in a minute I'll tell you why. But first, listen to the poem. It's called "The Snow Man."

(Reading) `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 juniper 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.'

Why is this poem so good? Unlike any other English poem I've read, "The Snow Man" marries what it's about with the way it's built. If you were to parse it the way I was taught in high school, diagraming all those clauses and phrases on those slanted lines, you would come up with a perfectly balanced mobile built around the conjunction `and.' That's the trick of the poem. Each clause seems to be coming to an end and then suddenly up pops another `and.'

It begins `One must have a mind of winter to regard the frost and the boughs of the pine trees crusted with snow.' Fine, that looks like the end of the first sentence. But, no, it goes on impelled by `and.' `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 juniper shagged with ice, the spruces rough in the distant glitter of the January sun.' There, we're finished with the `ands.' Think again. The very next word in the poem is another pesky `and.' Stevens is forcing his readers to reanalyze what they have just read again and again and again.

I once put all the words of the poem on little white cards and made a mobile out of it. It dangled, perfectly balanced, like an Alexander Calder creation. The poem, twisting and turning when I blew on it, became the visual counterpart of what it's about.

But what is it about? The poem is a recipe for seeing things as they really are. To do that, you must see the world the way the snow man does. The snow man is free of human biases. He knows that in winter the days aren't cold and miserable; you are. To see like him, you must constantly challenge your own assumptions. It's one thing to say that in words. It's quite another to say it in the structure the words hang on. No one did it before. No one has done it since. You can measure great jugglers by how many balls they keep in the air. It's the same thing with poets.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.