Thursday, March 3, 2011

'Place of the Salamander' by Yves Bonnefoy & 'The Snowman' by Wallace Stevens

                                                 Place of the Salamander 
                   The startled salamander freezes
                        And feigns death.
                        This is the first step of consciousness among the stones,
                        The purest myth,
                        A great fire passed through, which is spirit.

                        The salamander was halfway up
                        The wall, in the light from our windows.
                        Its gaze was merely stone,
                        But I saw its heart beat eternal.

                        O my accomplice and my thought, my allegory
                        Of all that is pure,
                        How I love that which clasps to its silence thus
                        The single force of joy.

                        How I love that which gives itself to the stars by the inert
                        Mass of its whole body,
                        How I love that which awaits the hour of its victory
                        And holds its breath and clings to the ground.

                        Translation: Galway Kinnell

                                         The Snowman
                        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 to the snow,
                        And, nothing himself, beholds
                        Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.


With these two poems from Bonnefoy and Stevens it is not so much their technical aspects that interest me but rather the sensibilities at work in them. In a sense, it comes back to what I wrote about ‘The Panther’ by Rilke. These poems represent an entirely new response to nature which removes it from the old role as picturesque backdrop to human life, or even the more sophisticated “pantheism” of the Romantics.

Here, the boundary between the natural world and the individual’s awareness of it is heightened to the point where it almost breaks down. It is as if there is an attempt to experience a direct relationship between the two: mind located in the greater ground of nature. Steven’s poem expresses this connection explicitly and seems, to my mind, to share something of the detached observationalism of Oriental thought, particularly Zen Buddhism: “One must have the mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine trees crusted with snow...”. Bonnefoy’s approach, although similar in effect, derives from a tradition where the individual, subjective experience is more central to the encounter (the repeated use of that very human word ‘love’ anchors the poem in this way and shows the participation of the observer). The essential quality of these kinds of awareness is that they no longer treat the natural world as separate (the world out there) but as possessing a reality that is not disconnected from our own. In this sense, these poems embody a new position.

Helen Vendler writes in her introduction to the Faber Book of 20th Century Poetry that modernists strove for a precision of perception which Steven’s spoke of as an “accuracy with respect to the structure of reality”. It is this attempt at accuracy that signifies the difference. In the past, in the instances where nature was regarded as possessing an intelligence – as in Classical Mythology – it was given this quality at the expense of its own reality or “structure”. In other words, it was still a backdrop to our human dramas, albeit an elaborate one which clapped thunder at the appropriate moment.

Perhaps with the modern view derived largely from objective scientific theories – particularly Darwinian evolution – the roles are reversed. Nature is not there for our amusement or advantage. We have grown and struggled from it, but are grounded in its laws. I don’t mean to suggest, at the same time, that nature governs us completely and that we are at the mercy of its dispassionate and fixed laws. Rather, it is that our reality cannot be separated from that of nature, and the two must be understood in relation to each other. As Steven’s put it in The Necessary Angel: "The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us." In this sense, the observer makes it real, even as that observer attempts to absent himself and “behold / Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.”

Without attempting to differentiate between Bonnefoy’s and Steven’s positions I wanted to look at this awareness in view of Bonnefoy’s favourite word “presence” which may apply to both poems in their different stances. In his introduction to Bonnefoy’s selected poems, John Naughton writes:

             Much of the emphasis in French poetry inspired by Mallarmé has been the
idea of absence: the recognition of the fatal abolition of the signified by the
the signifier… From the beginning, Bonnefoy’s intuition of and insistence
upon presence has set him apart. The emergence of presence in our experience
                of the world creates what the poet calls the “true place”.

Essentially the notion of presence restores our place in a meaningful universe not by appropriating or using it to our own purpose, but by allowing its structures to become apparent and reconciled to our own. It seems to me the essential difference between ‘The Snowman’ and ‘Place of the Salamander’ is that presence is represented in the first by the act of self-negation, the natural world objectified within our gaze – with us, in turn, understood as objects in that world; and in the latter by the act of identification with the world, with the subject bleeding into the natural order as the salamander feigns death, this being “the first step of consciousness among the stones... a great fire passed through which is spirit”. Both poets share a similar project, but with quite different outcomes: to come to terms with our relationship to the environment, and to discover and chart some kind of meaning through such an encounter.

After the somewhat theoretical nature of today's entry, I shall be returning to more emotionally direct material next week!

'The Snowman' read by James Merrill


  1. Thanks for these and the close reading. Once again you have reminded me of a poet I have loved reading in the past and I'll want to get his books out again.

    It's the Wallace Stevens poem that really strikes me. To what you've already said I can only add that it's the quality of the language, the way he uses words, that gives a thrill to me along with what is being said. I feel right there in this poem, and at the same time I'm envying Stevens his ability to find those words and that way of saying it.

    Envy can often be enjoyable!

  2. Yes, I really love Stevens' writing also. He manages to be both stately and sonorous at the same time.

    There is a nice youtube clip for 'The Snowman'. It says the reading is by Stevens' but someone pointed out in the comments that it's actually James Merril reading the piece. Worth checking out as it's a fine reading...

  3. Very interesting and enjoyable. The Stevens poem is an old favourite

  4. I decided to include the Merrill reading of 'The Snow Man'. He has a voice rather similar to Stevens' so it seems almost as good as having the master himself. It also adds a little multimedia to the blog. Hope you all enjoy.