Monday, February 4, 2019

A Different World

The snow began to fall yesterday afternoon.  It fell into the night.  It fell through the night.  This morning, the World was transformed.  A north wind swept down the street, through the trees, and across the dark, white-capped waters of Puget Sound.  Late in the day, the sky cleared a bit, and the horizon at sunset was a narrow strip of dull yellow beneath a grey cloud ceiling.

Snow is rare in this land of unremitting mist and drizzle.  When it arrives, this poem usually comes first to mind:

                              River Snow

From a thousand hills, bird flights have vanished;
on ten thousand paths, human traces wiped out:
lone boat, an old man in straw cape and hat,
fishing alone in the cold river snow.

Liu Tsung-yüan (773-819) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 282.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Mount Yuga in Bizen Province"

I am a creature of habit, and thus the following poem by Robert Frost (not "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which I am indeed quite fond of) invariably appears next:

                       Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it -- it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936).

Of course, Robert Frost being Robert Frost, there is a great deal more afoot here than a bucolic snow scene.  But what brings the poem back to me when snow begins to fall are memories of my childhood in Minnesota -- the early 1960s, when we had real snowfalls (says the aging man):  snow that often began to fall at twilight (or so it seems in selective memory), and fell and fell and fell, unceasing, as we slept. "Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast."  Exactly.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Travellers on Horseback in the Snow"

The feeling of those snowy Minnesota twilights and nights was one of peace and tranquility, not dread.  No loneliness; no "empty spaces;" no "desert places."  This has never changed for me.  I lived in Tokyo from 1993 to 1994.  While I was there, I experienced a snow storm in February of 1994.


And so at last it has come.  Quietly.
Has quietly come and changed everything.
This, as we watch, is what we always say:
"It changes everything.  Now we can live."
And we all want to walk out into it.
Walk out into it, at night, and look up,
Thinking that this world is a simple world
While all around us it never ceases.
We can walk for miles down an empty road
And see it swirl down beneath each streetlight.
We can turn and watch our path disappear.
And it continues to quietly come.
It has come, at last, and changed everything.

sip (written in February, 1994, in Tokyo).

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Snow Falling on a Town"


Sam Vega said...

Thank you for this little selection. We had our snow last week, but (like you, being near the sea) only a light sprinkling.

That's a fine little poem of yours. I only remember one other that you have given us (about death) and if you have any more in stock, please don't hold back out of modesty. They really do compare very well with the more famous ones you provide us with.

That poem got me thinking about snow poems and the feelings associated with snow-fall. What it and the Robert Frost poem point to is, I think, a simplifying and erasing of the human. For a time, the world is transformed, not by a mere addition of frozen water crystals, but by the blanking out of all those signs and tracks which lead the mind away into discursiveness rather than simply being aware. Rather than being able to follow the usual clues in a landscape or scene, the mind seems to be struck dumb for a while. Something similar is alluded to, I think, in Conrad Aiken's superb short story Silent Snow, Secret Snow, although with a darker purpose. But I'm already following too many of those tracks and signs that should be left covered with white, so I'll desist.

One final point, though, on Frost's poem. Those rhymes are increasingly daring as the poem progresses. The first verse establishes the rhyming scheme, which is suitable for simple description. There seems to be no way that it can accommodate deeper and personal feelings, but he does it brilliantly. The phrase "on stars where no human race is" seems to signal a desperately clumsy and bathetic ending, but somehow it magically redeems itself. Inner and outer are perfectly poised in a way that we couldn't have predicted.

Again, thank you for this winter treat.

hart said...

Whata wonderful collection of snow poems, I esp like the 'old man in a straw..'

George said...

One I think of during snowstorms is Richard Wilbur's "First Snow in Alsace". To be sure, it is specific to a time and place as "Desert Places" is not.

Anonymous said...

more of your own poems please! This is wonderful. Joy

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you very much for yet another thought-provoking comment. Your meditation on the feelings that a snowfall may evoke, and the potential sources of those feelings, is wonderful. Your thoughts (for example, "the blanking out of all those signs and tracks which lead the mind away into discursiveness rather than simply being aware" and "the mind seems to be struck dumb for a while") led me to think of Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man," especially the final six lines: ". . . 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." The final line always makes my head spin, and I am not trying to exactly equate your thoughts and Stevens', but the poem did come to mind. As did "Late Snow" by J. C. Squire, which I suspect you know as well.

Thank you for the recommendation of Aiken's story, which I am not familiar with. I did some research, and discovered that the full text is available in the archives of The Virginia Quarterly Review, where it first appeared in 1932. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I will.

I'm pleased you mention Frost's rhymes in "Desert Places": as it happens, I always smile when I again encounter the rhymes "spaces/race is/places" in the final stanza, and I did so again when I was posting the poem this time. On the day I posted the poem, I was thinking to myself: "Did Frost come up with 'race is' first, and then find the other two rhymes?" I also wondered whether he chuckled to himself at using "race is" as a rhyme. But you hit the nail on the head (and, as you know, this is typical of Frost, again and again): "Inner and outer are perfectly poised in a way that we couldn't have predicted."

Another thought on rhyme in "Desert Places": I once read a comment on "Desert Places" which noted that it and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (which can be thought of as a companion poem) share a similar rhyme scheme, although Frost set himself a more difficult task in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Both poems have four stanzas. In the first three stanzas of both poems, the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme. In "Desert Places," the third lines of each of the four stanzas do not rhyme with any other lines. But, in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the last word in the third line of the first stanza becomes the rhyme word for lines 1,2, and 4 of the second stanza, and so on through the third stanza -- until the fourth stanza, in which all four lines rhyme (deep/keep/sleep/sleep), and take their rhyme from the third line of the third stanza (sweep). My description is probably clumsy and difficult to follow. But please have a look at the two poems side-by-side. Frost is a marvel.

Finally, thank you very much for your kind words about my poem. As for posting more of them, I am, as you perceive, reluctant. The reluctance is based upon quality concerns (of course), as well as concerns about them being an imposition on long-suffering readers. That being said, I do post them on occasion if they seem particularly suitable for the matter at hand. Mind you, it is not a deep well: some 50-odd (few of which deserve to see the light of day). But I do greatly appreciate your kind words. Thank you again.

As ever, thank you for visiting. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

hart: I'm pleased you liked the poems. Yes, Liu Tsung-yüan's poem is lovely, isn't it? It is one of my favorite Chinese poems (actually, one of my favorite poems, period). It has the feeling of Chinese landscape painting.

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for the reference to "First Snow in Alsace," which is new to me. I found it on the internet. As you say, it is certainly "specific to a time and place," and the contrast of those specifics with the feelings that snow evokes in us is both lovely and disquieting.

As always, it's good to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Joy: Thank you very much. I'm pleased you liked the poem, and I greatly appreciate your kind words. As for more poems appearing in the future: please see my response to Sam Vega's comment above. But I am indeed grateful for your thoughts.

I'm delighted to hear from you again. Please return soon.

Wm. O'Brien said...

Your "Snow" is beautiful.

Stephen Pentz said...

Wm. O'Brien: Thank you very much. That's quite nice of you to say.

Thank you for visiting again.

Thomas Parker said...

I live in sunny So Cal, so snow is something that I get very little of (as in none) during the year. My time in the army, though (thirty five years ago, now) was spent in snowy places - Missouri, Indiana, Maryland, South Korea) and I learned to love snow then, and I miss it to this day. But even here in the (semi) desert, I used to spend some winter vacations in the nearby San Bernadino mountains and was never happier than when I woke in the night and realized that it was snowing:

Four A.M.

When the wind
Shakes the snow
From the branches
Onto the roof

The sound
Insinuates itself
Into my dreams

I think
That I am Adam

To God’s approaching

I hope it's not too presumptuous to share one of my own poems here, but hey, you shared one of yours! (It is your blog though, isn't it?)

Nikki said...

"Snow" is beautiful and totally captures that feeling that it creates the world anew and changes everything.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: I spent my teen-age and college years in Southern California and the Central Coast after my family moved from Minnesota, so I experienced the same longing for snow. I am also familiar with the San Bernardino Mountains, specifically the area around Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake. My experience of snow in those places only made me more nostalgic for "the snows of yesteryear!"

Thank you very much for sharing your poem. Yes, snow sounds of that sort (or of any sort) in the middle of the night are evocative aren't they? In a positive sense, for me at least. But the sound of "God's approaching/Footsteps" would give me pause.

Here is a lovely poem by Po Chü-i (translated by Burton Watson) about snow in the night:

Night Snow

I wondered why the covers felt so cold,
and then I saw how bright my window was.
Night far gone, I know the snow must be deep --
from time to time I hear the bamboos cracking.

Thank you for visiting again, and for sharing the poem and your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: Thank you very much for your kind words about the poem. I'm happy you liked it. I had the sense when writing it that my feelings were not unique (they never are), but embodied what many of us feel when snow arrives. I am pleased to hear that it may resonate with you.

As always, thank you for visiting.

Unknown said...

It snowed in England too, recently. Your blog and the snow recalled poems and prose for me. J.B. Priestley described the delight of first snow in his wonderful book of essays, Delight. he wrote 'The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?

Louis Macneice had his own poem about snow, from the perspective of being inside. Frost always preferred 'outer weather'... Snow is a beautiful poem. Thank you for keeping posting

lee Hanson

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. The passage by Priestley is lovely. Thank you for sharing it. After a bit of looking around, I discovered that Delight has recently been republished by Great Northern Books (a publishing house I suspect you are familiar with), together with a number of his other books. Because I am woefully ignorant of his work, I think I should pick up a copy of Delight. (I still have been meaning to read Man and Time: it was mentioned in something I was reading recently, and I remembered (correctly, I hope) that you had mentioned it in one of your comments here. I find his ideas about time intriguing.)

Thank you as well for sharing MacNeice's "Snow," one of the first poems I encountered by him, and still a favorite. The first stanza perfectly captures the feeling that comes with the arrival of snow. "World is suddener than we fancy it" is perfect.

Thank you very much for the kind words about "Snow." (Although, come to think of it, you may have been referring to MacNeice's "Snow," not mine!) As always, thank you for visiting. It's nice to know you are still stopping by.