A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1906
January 29, 2018

Winter Poetry

MONTPELIER – About two in the morning – during what, with grim humor, I call “the wee hours of the night” – I looked out the west window. One light shone, about half a mile away; a faint glow of the city’s streetlights brightened another half-mile away, reflected in hanging haze; and on the nearby fields, the waxing moon reflected. My head is almost pathologically full of quotations, so on this occasion, naturally, bubbled up, “The moon on the crest of the new-fallen snow...” Except this wasn’t new-fallen snow; it was the iron-hard crust left by the recent warm rains and the subsequent freeze. Almost fully recovered from a fall on ice in early December, I keep creepers, crampons, and carbide-tipped poles by the back door for even the trip across the yard to the garage.

It’s winter in New England. For some reason it commands more literary attention than winter anywhere else. Not that there aren’t other great riffs. Garrison Kiellor’s poem “The Finn Who Would not Take a Sauna” (“It isn’t that I can’t,” he said. “I simply do not wanna.”) is as good as it gets in the light-hearted department. Joseph Conrad’s description, in his story “The Warrior’s Soul,” describing the retreat of Napoleon’s Grand Armée from Russia, is as grim as it gets: “They who escaped must have had their souls doubly riveted inside their bodies to carry them out of Russia through that frost fit to split rocks....A crawling, stumbling, starved, half-demented mob. It issued from the forest a mile away and its head was lost in the murk of the fields.”

Perhaps it’s the sense of the pulling in required to plow successfully through winter that so heats the literary juices. A warm stove gets as much reverence as the high altar at St. Peter’s; a walk through the snowy woods ­– especially with a dog whose childlike joy in it all is infectious – inspires us to notice every ephemeral icy detail. Everyone who writes at all seems to have something to say about it.

Robert Frost, of course, is the first one there. He helps us prepare: “Not yesterday I learned to know the love of bare November days before the coming of the snow...” There’s a somber wood-in-the-woodshed, canned-fruits-and-vegetables-in-the cellar air about it that says, “Bring it on. We’re ready.”

Our early snow this year seemed a blessing. It stayed; the temperature plummeted; and our Christmas was white, the way it’s supposed to be. I put out rolled corn for the turkeys, crows, and blue jays. The crows come early in the morning, even before Kiki dashes out to clear the perimeter, and keep one eye on the glass back door. When she comes flying out, up they go, onto the branches of a dead pine, and glare down at her. They make her nervous; but they remind me of Frost again, feeling the unexpected grace of a dust of snow shaken down on him by a crow in a hemlock.

Probably the best-known poem about winter is Whittier’s “Snow-Bound.” It was all the rage in its day, and made the poet a tidy sum of money, but I’ve always found it clunky – possibly because it was assigned reading in secondary school. It does capture the soft, but irresistible power of a winter nor’easter: house like a cocoon with family trapped, but snug inside; paths shoveled to take care of the animals similarly trapped, but warm in the barn. The beauty of such a situation, even today, is that, although it’s almost impossible to get out and anything done, nobody expects you to.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a poem that everybody trips over himself to show he’s memorized – even though I’ve never met anybody who knows what it means. An old friend, one of the first ever to traverse the summit of Mount Everest, in 1963, had to bivouac that night with three mates high on the mountain, but by radio assured Base Camp they’d make it down: “... miles to go before I sleep.”

The current glaze of ice atop the snow – almost everyone walking his dog in the park is shod in crampons – reminds me of another Frost poem, “Brown’s Descent”: “Brown lived at such a lofty farm that everyone for miles could see his lantern when he did his chores in winter after half-past three.” One evening the wind catches him between barn and house, and he comes sliding down the mountain with his lantern describing frantic arcs in the night sky, two miles down to the river road. He can’t climb back up. Yankee that he is, he simply remarks that his lantern is almost dry, and walks several miles home.

My favorite winter poem is “The Courtin’, by James Russell Lowell. “God makes sech nights, all white an’ still, fur’z you can look or listen, moonshine an’ snow on field an’ hill, all silence and all glisten.” Zekle – “six feet o’ man, A-1” – comes courting Huldy, who’s paring apples “like murder,” and pretends not to know why he’s there. Lowell’s description of her has stuck with me forever: “For she was jes’ the quiet kind whose naturs never vary, like streams that keep a summer mind snowhid in Jenooary.”

Photo by Willem lange