Winter is once more upon us. Here in Southern California, winter is a relative concept. And a capricious season, to the extreme. For instance the past week we had weather that was winterlike and very cozy. But this week the temperatures are expected to be in the high 70s, hitting maybe 80 on Christmas Eve. Since I lived the early part of my life in the Midwest, I have a vague recollection of what winter is supposed to be, and today I like to celebrate that memory with poetry.
Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man is about winter, and it is also about nothing, not in a literal sense, though it can be read that way, particularly as the primary subject of winter very easily conjures up images of bleakness, nihilistic and natural emptiness. But according to William W. Bevis in his book, Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature, Stevens was writing about “meditative descriptions of nothing (Buddhist voidness), with the thing itself meditatively perceived . . .” The poem is indeed Buddhistic and Stevens was familiar with some Buddhist teaching, but it was more likely inspired and modeled after his mentor’s teachings. That mentor being a certain George Santayana.
For me, what Wallace means with “One must have a mind of winter” is something similar to the kind of mind described in the Diamond Sutra, a mind that is “unsupported.” This is an English equivalent to a Sanskrit word, apratishtita, that according to Mu Soeng in The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, “mirrors the core message of the Diamond Sutra.”
In the sutra, the Buddha tells Venerable Subhuti that a “Bodhisattva should have an unsupported mind, that is, a mind which is nowhere supported, with thoughts unsupported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or mind-objects.”
A mind that is unsupported is “a mind not focusing on anything,” or “caught up in anything,” a mind that does not dwell anywhere. This is not our normal mind, or is it? Buddhism teaches that the quiet, unsupported mind, freed from all attachments and functioning harmoniously, is our natural mind, and that it is a state of mind cultivated, or rather, rediscovered only through meditation.
A meditative practice provides us with that “bare place” where for a short space in time, which is the timelessness of the present, we can be unsupported, not caught up in anything nor dwelling anywhere in particular, but entering into a disposition akin to Stevens’ mind of winter, as does the listener, standing in the silent, divestiture of winter, the white space of snow . . .
I’m afraid that further explanation may spoil the poem’s effect for first time readers. So now that I have given you a rough idea of how I interpret The Snow Man, here is the poem written in 1921 by one of the great modern American poets, a man who spent his most of his life working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford, Connecticut.
The Snow Man
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.