If you watch Saturday Night Live regularly, you might have caught this recent sketch, in which three gangsters pull up to a brownstone, preparing to execute a hit (http://www.hulu.com/watch/588245#i1,p12,d1). The getaway driver is immediately distracted by snowflakes falling across a quiet city street, and his infectious mood of gleeful awe rubs off on one of his companions, who nostalgically conjures images of playing in the snow that trigger a boyish giddiness, clashing tonally with the violence they’ve set out to perform. It’s SNL, so the episode has a dark comic turn on the horizon: one of the gangsters spots a fuzzy white bunny and, getting out of the car to pet it, gets shot by his would-be target. But I happened to watch the skit on a day that clouds pregnant with snow finally—after long anticipation—filled Western Montana’s skies and our two-week mid-January false spring of blue skies and 40-degree temperatures scuttled back into April where it belongs. We got our thick blanket of snow back, and with it that powerful mélange of emotions that snow triggers.
Our poets have been attuned to snow’s emotional depths for centuries. And of course poets are attuned to it in part because we all have that capacity to resonate with the potent analogy between our lives, our emotions, our minds and the natural world that changes shape in ways that inspire creation. So here, I offer to you a miniature snow florilegia, the medieval Latin term for the “flowers of reading” one collects as one reads, storing up moments of beauty, insight, and inspiration for later recollection. I’ve got a lot of snow poems tucked away, but these are the ones that sprung to mind here as January turns to February in Missoula.
In “The Snow-Storm” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson re-casts accumulated snow as the raw material with which the north wind, “a fierce artificer,” could sculpt buildings: “to mimic in slow structures, stone by stone, / Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work, / The frolic architecture of snow.” His own poetic act re-frames the forces of the natural world as an aesthetic agent, making art for our edification and delight. A similar analogy lies behind Emily Dickinson’s images in “It sifts from leaden sieves,” in which she works carefully across a landscape from images seen from afar (“It powders all the wood”), to the roads that link the spatial geographies of the poem together (“It fills with Alabaster Wool / The Wrinkles of the Road”), until she pivots to the human world, whose fences and field stubble are wrapped in “Celestial Vail.” When that work is done, as with Emerson, the “artist” disappears, and the “it” that moves the poem and the storm—the snow never named in the poem—“stills its Artisans—like Ghosts— / Denying they have been.”
While Dickinson’s gorgeous poem asks us finally to linger on an image with no human in it any longer, the same kind of mania for multiplying analogies for snow drives the great medieval Welsh poet, Daffyd ap Gwilem, to lace his poem, “The Winter,” with a kind of restive discomfort. His tumbling sequence of analogies accumulates like the snow itself into a collective effect beyond the individual snowflake: “a swarm of white bees”; “a load of chalk”; “White flour is milled”; angels lifting planks “in the flour-loft floor heaven”; snowdrifts like “swollen bellies”; and the great fall lying on the country like a “wide wall” (architecture again), “stretching one sea to the other, / greater and graver than the sea’s graveyard.” And that clear emotional turn, precipitated by the poet’s refusal to go outdoors even to chase a girl, reminds us that the snowbound world of the 14th century was also a place of claustrophobia. The poem looks forward to spring, but not in the lush verdant images of convention; the speaker’s state of mind is so beaten down by winter, that all he can do is plaintively ask: “When will rain come?”
It’s no surprise that we would write and think of snow here in Montana, where snow is a crucial physical and emotional resource, framing out lives in all sorts of ways, from the pain and inconvenience of moving around town after a big fall; to the epiphanies of moonlit walks with the sounds of owls heard distinctly through the still quiet; to the adrenaline rush of those first few deep turns off a snow-draped cornice to which you skinned for an hour or two, traversing a back-country landscape seemingly purpose-built for your pleasure. So I’ll end my snowy meditation with a brief discussion of a few of my favorite snow poems from two great poets right here at UM.
Bob Pack’s “Snow Rise” converts the well-observed image of snow that drifts up from a lake on a windy day to muse on the way memory can sometimes make us feel as though our lives are moving backward, or as his speaker puts it: “Dreaming time has reversed, I watch drowned snow / Appear to lift up from the lake.” The image and its link to the unstable mental experience of time creates a powerful analogy for the speaker’s memory of an unnamed interlocutor whose “picture” forms in his mind though brief, imagistic glimpses: “Your red cheeks radiant against the wind, “Your gloved hands covering lips’ good-bye.” While we never get a narrative from the experience, we participate in a powerful meditation on the spontaneous link of images and analogies that we form when we patiently attend to the simplest observations of snow, its delicacy, its individuation, and, at the same time, its cumulative effect.
Joanna Klink’s recent poetry has several beautiful snow poems, like “Antelope” and “Winter Field,” both of which use emotionally freighted images of snow to push toward meditation on questions of fragility and perseverance in the face of, and in the light of, despair. “Antelope,” which reaches out in deep sympathy to a herd of antelope stranded on a frozen lake whose ice breaks, captures an intense vulnerability in a simple phrase “They came / Because they believed they would be held.” We naturally project our awareness of their demise—or discover our awareness of our own demise—onto the corollary moments in our lives when we, similarly, believe we will be OK, testing the ice of our lives. The diminuendo in the simple image of snow in the final lines allows us to release that pathos, and accept what we’ve witnessed, as the poet converts this scene into a moment of close observation, as we see both a luminous natural beauty and an ineluctable association of our final mortality: “All day the snow fell. Around the lake, the air / filled with moths, light as pencil outlines.” In “Winter Field,” Klink sets the “dull math of cold inside the bones” against the “dark moods of snows—/ a sense of peace so deep we extend out / into the blackness of our lives…feel no hint of terror.” The white tapestry of snow offsets the darkness of winter, and allows us to live in those “dark moods” without needing to fight them off. Klink’s pluralized “dark moods”” also reminds us of the rich range of emotions that the winter unlocks in us, and aligning her poem with this tradition of poets stretching back hundreds of years cinches that human, cyclical link, both in our own lives, and in the lives of human experience, with which she closes her poem: “You were here once; you will be here again.” Indeed. And the “you” here extends back in time to those mediating ghosts of ages past whose minds are partly embedded in the poems that have pushed forward in time to us.
I hope you get out and enjoy the snow, and, while you’re doing so, take time to dwell on the rich, inner resources our poets have trained us to cultivate. Build your own “folic architecture of snow,” like my son, Griffin, who, even as I write this, is putting the finishing touches on a frontyard snow couch, where he and a friend intend to drink a cup of hot chocolate as they gaze out on the “Celestial Vail” this fine winter evening. I think I’ll go join them.
Professor of English