Shmoopers, we've got a serious question: what is reality?
No seriously—we're asking.
Because Shmoop sees the world a bit differently than a lot of folks out there. And how can we be sure that what we're seeing is, well, real? What if we've gone off the deep end and can't tell anymore?
Luckily, we have Wallace Stevens to reel us back in, and he does just that in the awesomely difficult, but ultimately rewarding poem, "The Snow Man." See, according to Stevens, reality is basically what you make of it. Sure, there are trees and cars and buildings and mountains—there's no debate about that—but how you see them, what you bring to them, and how they're real to you is entirely up to… you.
Stevens believed that we create the world around us—that we make it what it is for our brains. And how do we do that? With a handy little tool called imagination. And everyone's imagination is, thankfully, wildly different from that of anyone and everyone else. Which is awesome because, if you think about it, the alternative is really, profoundly, horrifically boring.
That's what "The Snow Man" is all about. The speaker of this poem holds two realities in his hands—the reality of winter (cold, bare landscapes that are nothing more than landscapes), and the reality we create when we bring our own perspective (miserable wind, bitter cold etc.). He describes the snow man, who can strip what he sees of his own emotional baggage and see that the world is, well, not much without that emotional baggage. If this is all a bit confusing, well, read on and you'll see what we mean.
After originally appearing in Poetry magazine, "The Snow Man" then appeared in Wallace Stevens's very first book of poetry, Harmonium, in 1923. The book, and Stevens for that matter, exploded onto the scene and left American poetry reeling with his intellectual insight, mastery of imagery, and general awesomeness. It's hard to believe the dude worked as an insurance executive for a living. But hey, Stevens would be the first to tell you that perception is not always reality.
Because you ask the Big Questions, too.
And Shmoop's gonna let you in on a little secret. You know all those Big Questions? About life and death and—dare we say it?—reality? Well, sometimes the best place to look for answers is poetry itself.
Okay, okay, so poetry isn't going to come right out and tell you the meaning of life (which is fine, because you already know it's 42). But poetry does grapple with those questions, same as you. And sometimes, as at the end of "The Snow Man," we stumble upon the kind of insight we can only hope to gain in our own lives.
Poetry is serious business for serious people (which of course doesn't mean it's not fun), and Mr. Stevens was Mr. Serious, with a huge dose of fun. He does big thinking in tiny, quirky little poems, and if you're lucky enough to read his work, you'll find yourself doing some big thinking, too. He offers you the rare chance to get in touch with your thinking-cap-wearing inner philosopher, which is something we all need to do from time to time.
Poets.org Has the Goods on Our Guy
Biography, poems, and audio—oh my!
Modern American Poets
Get your groove on with your inner academic by checking out what elbow-patched critics are saying about Stevens's poetry.
NY Times interview
Meet Mr. Stevens… in 1954. No time machine necessary.
A Poet Reads another Poet
The ever awesome James Merrill reads "The Snow Man" in this old school video.
Voices & Visions
This awesome documentary series covers a ton of different poets, but you should definitely check out their take on Stevens.
Linguist Jay Keyser explains why "The Snow Man" is the greatest short poem written in English. Now that's high praise.
Poetryfoundation.org's Take on the Sound of "The Snow Man"
A nice, slow reading of the poem that emphasizes the tone. It's borderline eerie, Shmoopers.
101 Sevens Readings
A link to the Wallace Stevens podcast. And yes. There is a Wallace Stevens podcast.
Awkward Times With Bob
Here Stevens and Robert Frost hang out in Key West. They look like they're having a grand old time. And by grand old, we mean awful.
Nice digs, dude. Looks like the insurance business treated him well.
Library of America's Wallace Stevens
Great book, but it's not for the cheap of heart.
The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination
Wonder where all this snow man philosophy is coming from?
A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens
For those of you who just can't get enough.