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Snow Days

From flurries to relentless storms, why snow makes American poetry American.
The Shoveler by Corey Templeton

Snow got you down? Maybe poetry can help—or, at the least, if you live in the part of the United States pummeled by snowstorms over the past few weeks, maybe the poets can bring you back to aspects of snow that aren’t about plows or school closings. “Snow is to water what poetry is to prose,” writes the historian Bernard Mergen in Snow in America. Snow may have been like poetry—beautiful, often impractical, different each time—since time immemorial, but there was not much snow in English-language poetry for centuries: Great Britain got snow (especially in the 18th century, the so-called “Little Ice Age”), but never as much as New England (let alone Minneapolis or Buffalo). Renaissance and Augustan poets could make it a metaphor (“O that I were a mockery king of snow!” exclaims Shakespeare’s Richard II), but they rarely described or enjoyed it for its own sake: James Thomson’s “Winter,” from The Seasons (1750), portrays “one wild dazzling waste, that buries wide / The works of man.” When Thomson tries to admire winter weather, he praises not snowflakes or snowdrifts but crisp ice and frost. British Romantic poets liked snow a lot more—Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had seen a lot of snow in the Swiss Alps, explains why in this poem:

I love snow, and all the forms
         Of the radiant frost;
I love waves, and winds, and storms,
         Everything almost
Which is Nature’s, and may be
Untainted by man’s misery.

No wonder, then, that when the residents of the United States of America tried to distinguish their poems from those of Great Britain, some of them seized on the snow. Nineteenth-century writers, says Mergen, saw snow as a test of “moral and physical fitness,” as well as a way to “mirror Yankee character.” When Emily Dickinson wrote the line “I see—New Englandly,” she meant that it would not be winter, for her, “without the Snow’s Tableau.” In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow-Storm,” snow is a kind of Romantic poet, remaking simple New England farms and fences into elaborate shapes, then leaving human beings “[t]o mimic in slow structures, stone by stone, / Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work, / The frolic architecture of the snow.”

Emerson’s poem supplied the epigraph to John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1866 “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl,” widely taught—and recited—in schools for a century. My mother’s parents used to read it aloud when snow closed her school for the day. Whittier’s snow makes a New England farmstead exotic:

The old familiar sights of ours
Took marvellous shapes; strange domes and towers
Rose up where sty or corn-crib stood,
Or garden-wall, or belt of wood;
A smooth white mound the brush-pile showed,
A fenceless drift what once was road;
The bridle-post an old man sat
With loose-flung coat and high cocked hat;
The well-curb had a Chinese roof;
And even the long sweep, high aloof,
In its slant splendor, seemed to tell
Of Pisa’s leaning miracle.

Stuck indoors for a week, the Whittiers do puzzles, play games, and tell stories about New England and Quaker history. Whittier’s snowstorm scares children during the night, with “the shrieking of the mindless wind”— but when the sun comes up his family stays warm, and stays together, thanks to the “hearth-fire’s ruddy glow.”

Whittier was known, before the Civil War, for his poems against slavery, and “Snow-bound” preserves his Abolitionist sentiments, praying that “Freedom’s young apostles” can “[u]plift the black and white alike.” For later readers, though, the poet’s politics could disappear behind his snow-white images and Anglo-Saxon cast: poet and scholar Angela Sorby writes that “Snow-Bound” satisfied postbellum “longing for a simpler, more rustic, more intimate, more democratic, and whiter America.”

Snow can signify racial whiteness, or white supremacy, for African American poets today. Consider Thylias Moss’s response to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” entitled “Interpretation of a Poem by Frost”: Moss’s young girl, “her face eternally the brown / of declining autumn,” goes into the white woods and finds, not Frost, but “Jim Crow.” She watches “snow inter the grass, / cling to bark making it seem indecisive / about race preference, a fast-to-melt idealism”: the intricacies of literary interpretation can obscure the white privilege still present in literary scenes. But Moss’s girl has her own “promises to keep”:

the promise that she bear Jim no bastards,
the promise to her face that it not be mistaken as shadow,
and miles to go, more than the distance from Africa to Andover,
more than the distance from black to white
before she sleeps with Jim.

Moss taught for years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, an elite and historically WASPy prep school.

Terrance Hayes’s take on snowy whiteness interrogates Wallace Stevens, the author of “The Snow Man,” who famously made at least a few racist remarks. Hayes’s “Snow for Wallace Stevens” sees the modernist poet’s involuted, introverted, meditative work as part of his “snowed-in life”: “This song is for the wise man who avenges / by building his city in snow,” Hayes writes, quoting the last line of Stevens’s long poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.”

American poetry, like American history, cannot be separated from race and racism. Yet poetry by white Americans (Stevens among them) has given Hayes materials and techniques for his own self-aware and intricate poems:

                          I too, having lost faith
in language, have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness. This song is for my foe,
the clean-shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.

Hayes looks more closely at snow than Stevens did (or so Hayes’s poem implies). Packed snow in cold light, which stands for Stevens’s America, is not entirely white (as in white privilege) but permeated by blue (as in the blues).

Snow in Alaska—especially for Native Alaskan poets—can take on meanings foreign to the Lower 48. For dg nanouk okpik, snowfall belongs to a ritual of renewal:

The smell of wormwood,
fresh snow
on beach greens,
like a place name,
from a hand-scribed map.

For okpik, as for other 21st-century Inupiaq and Inuit poets such as Joan Kane and Cathy Tagnak Rexford, falling snow is one aspect, and not the most important aspect, of the larger hydrological features—permafrost, “a freshwater glacier,” “shelf ice,” “glacial resin,” slush and open water—that have supported native cultures for centuries, but may no longer work as they did. In the title poem from Kane’s Hyperboreal, she watches “the last snowmelt, a tricklet into mud, ulterior,” then contemplates “a glacier’s heart of milk” amid the threat of climate change: “June really isn’t June anymore, / Is it?”

Earlier American poets found melancholy in snow for other reasons. In Randall Jarrell’s poems “Windows” (1955), “Quarried from snow, the dark walks lead to doors / That are dark and closed”: Jarrell’s lonely pedestrian watches the snowbound houses—some of them lit from within by a TV—and feels cut off from the families inside. “The windowed ones within their windowy world / Move past me without doubt and for no reason … If only I were they!” The traveler in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” on the other hand, with “miles to go before I sleep,” may not even want to go home; enticed by the “dark and deep” forest, he may want instead to get lost forever. The brightly familiar rhymes belie the equally Frostian terrors underneath.

Frost learned a lot from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, naming his first book, A Boy’s Will, after a Longfellow poem. Both poets became very popular in their own day, both depicted New England winters over and over, and both wrote poems that look like celebrations of cold weather but—seen close-up—hold tears. Longfellow’s great sonnet The Cross of Snow” compared his own heart, after the death of his wife, to a forever-snowy, never-sunlit mountain crevasse in Colorado. He chose not to publish that poem during his lifetime, but he did publish the often-reprinted “Snow-flakes,” in which snow holds

      the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
     Now whispered and revealed
     To wood and field.

Because they melt fast, and because they at least seem unique, and because—if you grew up reading “Snow-Bound” or throwing snowballs—they connote childhood, snowflakes can also represent nostalgia. That is how William Matthews regarded the mild precipitation in his finest poem, “Spring Snow,” where “childhood doesn’t end / but accumulates” and memories, after a death, disperse “in flecks, like dust, like flour, like snow.” Accumulating and vanishing (either melted or plowed away), snow represents both erasure and memory, the wispy past and the emptiness of the moment, for the Minnesota poet Dobby Gibson, whose poem about snow, “Maybe Minorly,” is also a poem about ghosts: “we can’t pass / through the snow without thinking of them,” Gibson says, in “the sound of a plow / scraping the boulevard / and then the silence.” In Gibson’s Minneapolis night, “we can barely see the headlights / beautiful through the snow, / and then we can just barely see the snow.”

Romantic, American, wild, beautiful, nostalgic, natural; recurrent (in northern climates); part of a hydrological system; likely to build up, to melt, or to blow away; dangerous, unpredictable, quantifiable, inconvenient, and annoying, especially when it keeps coming: poets have seen in snow each of these qualities, but only one poet has addressed them all. That poet is A.R. Ammons, who spent most of his adult life teaching at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which gets 65 inches of snow, on average, per year. Ammons called one of his books Lake Effect Country, after one of the conditions that causes upstate New York to get so much precipitation. (“The one thing indisputable here is snow,” wrote Anthony Hecht in a sestina about Rochester; one of its inescapable end words is “snow.” )

But Ammons’s tour de force of snowy poetics must be his 1977 volume The Snow Poems. Panned on publication (though Helen Vendler liked it), the book compiles verse written daily or almost daily throughout a snow season, from late September 1975 to the following year’s last burst of spring snow. The book includes Ammons’s thoughts on turning 50, the NFL, local grocery stores, and literary history, but it keeps coming back to upstate snow, which obeys no human law, gets in everyone’s way, cannot be reliably forecast, and turns suddenly from beautiful to ugly (or vice versa): “Things change, the shit shifts, / by ways and sideways.”

The Snow Poems updates not only Emerson’s “frolic architecture,” not only Whittier’s housebound family, but the practical difficulties that snow generates: messy cleanup, refrozen slush, crowded grocery store aisles, “isles and islettes,” and four-letter words. The book also looks closely at the twigs, branches, brooks, and sidewalks before, during, and after the many varieties of mud, sleet, wind, and ice, over and over again:

some people think it’s going
to stop snowing
today glazed because it went up
to 45 yesterday: stuff
melted and ran, and last night went
down to twenty or twenty-five:
the motion slowed, piling up, slowing,
then stopped into slick, hard terrain:

Snow after snow, as it melts and shifts and returns, inspires Ammons to represent the transience in every human endeavor, and the shifting forces behind it all. The frequent double columns portray snow at once as orderly and messy, comprehensible (to meteorology and hydrology) and beyond our ken (since—as in Stevens’s “The Snow Man”—no mind is its guide):

oblivion melting          snowcrust the wind
everything                     variable
                                         enough to
                                         the blossom with us,
                                         no, there it
                                         goes behind
                                         the garage

Snow can take almost any shape for a moment, but it will not hold any shape for long: in the same way, human “axioms, postulates, theorems, hypotheses” and “paradigms in / neat blue conic sections,” not to mention our best-laid plans, must yield when the cold front shifts again.

The Snow Poems is a mess—intentionally so, like a slushy, drift-packed February yard. It’s also a catalog of Ammons’s feelings, which stray from the equanimity he recommends: “structureless rage … flares into fear,” though “fear and love” fade into “fate-like calm acceptance,” which itself might not outlast the day. To watch the snow with Ammons as your guide is to see Longfellow’s pessimism, Stevens’s cold meditation, Whittier’s homey warmth, Emerson’s Romantic awe, and Hayes’s irony folded into one ongoing, unpredictable, and lengthy chronicle, together with the practical irritations that earlier snow poems mostly leave out. It is to see the bright side of gray skies, to see humor in day after day of road closings, to admire bad jokes (“there’s no news like snow news”) alongside North American sublimity, and to see, with Ammons’s wry volatility, how much human lives resemble the snowflakes of lore: “nature goes so far as to make / us one of a kind / and treats us all alike.”

  • Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” He grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006),...


Snow Days

From flurries to relentless storms, why snow makes American poetry American.
  • Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” He grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006),...

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