Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


It's been snowing in Tacoma today. Snow in Tacoma is big news because usually this part of Washingston gets snow only once or twice a Winter, and even then, not much. Of course, in a city that's not used to snow, people react and over-react to it in a variety of ways. They don't necessarily know how best to drive automobiles in the stuff. They tend to go too fast. At the same time, snow seems to make a lot of people happy. I was getting my hair cut today when someone, not the hair-cutter, asked me, "What do you think of the snow?" "Well," I said, "I grew up around snow, so I associate it with shoveling." She seemed disappointed in my reaction, so I tried to meet her part-way. "But it sure provides a change from our usual gray Winter," I said. "It's pretty." "Yes," she said, brightening, "it's pretty." I gathered that most of the hair-cutters weren't able to show up that day because of the snow, especially if they lived in those notorious "outlying areas" that weather-persons seem to like to discuss. There always seems to be more snow in the outlying areas, not just in the "higher elevations." If you live in an outlying area that is also at a higher elevation, then the weather-person takes a very grave attitude toward your situation.

Anyway, I got to thinking about well known snow poems.

The first one that came to mind was the one I had to memorize and recite in 4th grade: "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." It's one of those Robert Frost poems that appeals to a broad range of readers. Those poets who like it probably like it first because of its technical brilliance. The combination of formal rhythm and speech rhythm works well, and the interlocking rhymes seem close to perfect. Repeating that line at the end really is a superb move, too. I've never sense anything forced in the poem. The scene and narrative are simple and accessible, so the poem works at almost every level of education, but they are also suggestive enough to tempt interpreters. When I studied the poem again in college, I discovered that some critics thought the poem to be about death. To me, this interpretation was not and is not persuasive.

Other snow-poems include Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man," Basho's "First Snow," Billy Collins' "Snow Day," Richard Brautigan's "The First Winter Snow," and William Carlos Williams' "Hunter's in the Snow," which, if memory serves, is an ekphrastic poem insofar as it concerns (in part) Breughel's painting of the same name. In fact, I think the poem may be in the book Pictures from Breughel, which earned Williams a Pulitzer Prize--his only one, I think. Tobias Wolff has a short story by the same name. It's a well written story, but also a cold-blooded one that echoes Hemingway insofar as it seems to have disdain for the characters in it, as Hemingway's "Francis MacComber" story does, too, at least in my opinion.

My goodness, I wonder how many Russian and Swedish poems there are about snow. Canadian, too. On a site called "The Canadian Poetry Archive," I just found a snow-poem by a person named Archibald Lampman. The poem is pretty good, and the poet's name is to die for. "Hello. My name is Archibald Lampman, and as you might have already guessed, I'm a poet."

Louis MacNiece has a poem called simply "Snow," and so does Edward Thomas. Robert Graves wrote called "Like Snow." Another Billy Collins one is "Shoveling Snow with Buddha."

Those venerable American poets Longfellow and Whittier wrote snow-poems, as did Edna St. Vincent Millay: "The Snow Storm."

But I keep thinking I'm forgetting a very important snow-poem, one even more obvious and famous than some of the ones already mentioned. Some figurative snow is piling up in drifts near my memory, however, and my memory is preoccupied. It thinks it may have to go out and shovel some snow soon.

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