Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sibling Assignment #176: A Mind of Winter

Our next sibling assignment comes from Christy:

This assignment is in three parts. First, choose a poem that you feel best exemplifies snow and post it. Second, explain why you chose that particular poem.  ( Questions you could consider: What drew you to that particular poem? Was it  a new poem or one you were familiar with? ) Third, find photos you have taken that connect in some way with the poem and your own writing about the poem.
Carol wrote about Robert Frost, here.  Christy wrote on a poem entitled, "Winter Grace", here.

The runner-up poem is Robert Frost's "Desert Places".  In fact, much of what I will write about "The Snow Man" would also work if I wrote about Frost's poem.  Want to read "Desert Places"?  Just go here.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

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.

I've been living with this poem and it's been always toward the front of my mind ever since Jim McLeod assigned to our Survey of American Literature class back in the spring semester of 1973.

The poem stirred me with its invitation that I might consider that I could have "a mind of winter" and that possibly I "ha[d] been cold a long time" if I were deaf to misery, if I were unable or unwilling to understand that the scenes of winter, the winds of winter are the scenes and sounds of suffering.

The poem was among the first to confront me with the idea that I might be nothing, that, as T. S. Eliot put it, I might be one of the hollow men, and, as Robert Frost put, that the most frightening desert places might be in myself.

This chilled me.

I think I had assumed that somehow I was born with meaning hard wired into my life. It had never dawned on me that I might be responsible for that meaning and that to shirk this responsibility might leave me empty, hollow, cold, possessing a mind of winter.

As time went on, I took a course in modern writers from Virginia Tinsley-Johnson and we studied existentialism and I confronted the idea that at my core I might be nothing, a blank slate, a story to be written that I could take responsibility for, or, I could ignore my emptiness, live a meaningless, unexamined life and surrender or neglect my own role as my life's author.

Wallace Stevens' poem gave me a way to experience this existential dilemma. Did I want to be cold? Did I want to have a mind of winter? Did I want to be a beholder of nothing? Did I want to be a snow man?

Coming from North Idaho, I was familiar with ice glittering in the distance, trees "shagged with ice", with "pine-trees crusted with snow", but I'd never scene these winter images as anything more than physical realities.

Stevens cracked open these images as metaphors for me. These trees and the wind pointed me to invisible realities, to larger truths having to do with what I thought I knew about the world and my life and how I thought I arrived at that knowledge.

I began to wonder if a tundra lived in me, a frozen tract of emptiness, an expanse of nothingness, a huge desert place.

And, so, these images of vacancy in the external world gave me a way to look at the vacancy within myself and I began to wonder what I could do to live a meaningful life, one of fulfillment, not of emptiness.

The concept of nothingness has informed my love for Shakespeare in profound ways and has helped me see more .deeply into the wisdom not only of the Tao de Ching but into the teachings of Jesus.

It should not be a surprise, then, since I've been grappling with emptiness and nothingness for over forty years, that it would also be central to my style of photography.

When I think of pictures I've snapped that connect with "The Snow Man", I think of the pictures that could serve as literal illustrations of the poem -- in particular, I think of "shagged with ice" and "crusted with snow" pictures I took back in January 2013 at Manito Park on a sibling outing with Christy and Carol:

But, there's a deeper connection.  It is more metaphorical, but it also has to do with an aspect of my style of photography.

I'm always looking for ways to portray emptiness and nothingness in my pictures.  I'm drawn to expanses, whether at the ocean, on a lake, or even in an empty parking lot.  When I take pictures in nature, I'm always looking for pictures I can take of negative space and I have taken a lot of pictures where the physical subject of the picture is way off to the side, sometimes even in a corner, and the rest of the picture is unoccupied, whether it's water or beach or sky.

A couple of pictures that reflect my enjoyment of negative space spring to mind.  One is framed and sits on a living room shelf in our apartment home.  It's of an egret at Delta Ponds in Eugene.  Rather than composing the picture with the egret near the center of the picture, I positioned the egret to the left and leaves reflecting on the pond and blue of the pond fill the rest of the frame. Much of it is negative space:

Another picture pops to mind. I took it on one of the beaches at La Push, Washington.  It not only is built around negative space, it also explores the existential idea that possibly we as humans are insignificant and that world around us is vast.  In short, we are both "the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  

I'll close with a winter picture.  I took it at the tip of a peninsula at Greenbelt Lake. I had no idea when I took it on Thursday that Christy would be giving us this prompt, but it is a perfect example of how I'm always looking for images of vastness, emptiness, and expanse. It's a cold picture.  If I knew a person looking at this picture had read "The Snow Man", I would title the picture, "Mind of Winter":

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