Three Poems About Snow

It's snowing. So how about some snow poetry? Here are three of my favorites: Louis MacNiece's Snow, Derek Mahon's The Snow Party, and Thomas Hardy's Snow in the Suburbs.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

A few things I admire about this poem: it really catches what I think is the central essence of poetic inspiration. Poets are in love with the perception of the world and all its manifold and wondrous juxtapositions. A vase of pink roses sits in the embrasure of a window with an outlook on snow. So there, inexplicably, is summer, winter, life, death, beauty, and blankness coming together in the poet's mind. The world is forever feeding itself to us in a thousand intoxicating sensations. In this sense, a good poet is really just a cheap drunk.

I also like the way the poem's sound sense undergirds its imagery and meaning. MacNiece is writing of how glorious it is to simply notice this world of ten thousands things around us, how utterly sensuous the on-going assault on our senses is (on the tongue on the eye on the ears), and this gets reinforced by the craziness of sound and meaning. Like the snow and pink roses, the meaning of the words is ironically athwart its uttered sound. Thus the line "soundlessly collateral and incompatible" is beautifully undercut. Despite the literal meaning, these words are collateral and compatible the moment they are no longer soundless. The drunkenness of things being various indeed.

Anyway, here's another poem. It's called "Snow Party" and it's by Derek Mahon. Both Mahon and MacNiece were born in Northern Ireland. And Basho, of course, was writing his hauntingly beautiful poetry in Japan while the sad fate of Northern Ireland was being forged at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The Snow Party
Basho, coming To the city of Nagoya
Is asked to a snow party.
There is a tinkling of china
And tea into china;
There are introductions.

Then everyone Crowds to the window
To watch the falling snow.
Snow is falling on Nagoya
And farther south
On the tiles of Kyoto.

Eastward, beyond Irago
It is falling Like leaves on a cold sea.
Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares.
Thousands have died since dawn
In the service Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.

I can never read this poem without thinking of the snow falling at the end of Joyce's Dubliners. Also, this poem came to mind for me the day the Iraq War began. A civilized snow fell quietly all that day as I listened to the news. I guess this poem is also about juxtapositions. Mahon's counterposing art and history. He's asking how can something so beautiful exist in a world beset with the horrors.

Lastly, here's Thomas Hardy's wonderful little poem on snow:

Snow in the Suburbs
Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.
A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eye
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.
The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.

Feeble hope? I love that. Read those last four lines (with their spondees and well-placed commas) and you can almost hear the bedraggled plump, plump, plump of that dazed cat climbing the stoop.


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