Prepare yourselves, Shmoopers, for the revelation of the century: this poem is all one sentence. Get your gasps out now, before we dive into the nitty gritty.
Now, you might be thinking, what does a rambling sentence have to do with poetic form? A lot—we promise. In fact, more so than all those three-line stanzas, the single sentence of "The Snow Man" is what gives this poem shape and meaning.
How so? Well, the poem starts off simple:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
A mind of winter is necessary to see some wintry stuff. We're good. But then! Stevens tosses an "and" our way:
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; […]
Okay, so in addition to needing a mind of winter, we need to have been cold a long time in order to see some other wintry stuff.
Except, that's not all. Stevens tosses another "and" our way:
[…] and not think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
Those two "ands" that keep this sentence going force you to reconsider everything that has come before in light of the new lines you've just read. Now we know that you don't just need a mind of winter to see wintry things; you need a mind of winter to see wintry things and not think wintry (read: depressing) thoughts. It's like you're reading in circles, constantly starting and restarting, rehashing old ideas in new ways.
And yet, there's more. Stevens' next major clause goes,
Which is the sound of the land
Once again, we're gaining new information that makes us reconsider the rest of the sentence in a new light. Stevens keeps doing it over and over again, with
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
We mean, that sentence just keeps growing and growing and growing, until we're left with a poem that means something along the lines of,
You have to have a mind of winter in order to avoid projecting your feelings and perspective onto what you're seeing and see the world for what it really is, which is nothing outside your own perception of it.
Except, you know, Stevens was a bit more eloquent.
See, thanks to ol' Wally's liberal use of enjambment, with each new clause—each new "and" or "which" or "for" or "who"—we can't help but build an idea. For Stevens, that's exactly what a poem should do: build an idea. The sentence itself takes us from a single, emotional perspective on winter (and its misery), and arrives at sheer nothingness, all with the help of a few conjunctions here, a few semi-colons there. By the end of it, we're left with one thing, and one thing only—the notion that perception is not always reality.