existentialism in poetry

1 post

“The Nothing That Is…”

I write a lot of nothing here, but let’s put it more kindly: I often write how the poet’s job is to find something in nothing. As poster boy, Will Shakespeare will do. He wrote a lot of nothing, too, one pie-sized portion of it called Much Ado About Nothing.

When you think about it, every successful poem is much ado about nothing. The reason the reader relates is simple: He or she says, “Hey! I know that nothing, too!”

Man, I hate to give credit to existential viewpoints, but there’s always the sneaking suspicion that the universe is nothing but chaos, that there are no reasons to this madness, that mankind is left with the thankless job of cobbling his own useless order and code of conduct out of life, despite the mess. OK, maybe because of the mess.

No one knew better than good old Wallace Stevens. His life was a perfect example. Each day, the click-click-click of those black wingtips as he walked down the hard, shining floors of his Hartford, Connecticut, insurance company, sat behind his large polished desk, and performed his orderly job by mapping out mankind’s measurable follies for profit.

And each night when he stepped back into the windy world outside our windows? Like the Yellow Brick Road, people. Somewhere between Munchkin Land and Oz. Anything goes, from talking scarecrows to flying monkeys, because life isn’t Kansas anymore—in fact, never was.

Instead, Stevens saw a big, sprawling, populated nothing that no amount of insurance could protect us from, and if you like scary oxymorons, you might just win yourself a brief little broom of happiness and call it “a poem.”

One of my favorite examples of “nothing” as poem disguised in the charcoal eyes and carrot nose of everyday life? Wallace Stevens “The Snowman,” a perfect frozen dinner good any time of the year, warm or cold:


“The Snow Man”
by Wallace Stevens

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 in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


Rereading it, you find a lot of nothings and nots, bare places and beholds. Harsh? Maybe. But, being ever the contrarian, I can rephrase it this way: What good is life if we don’t behold the stark truths around us?¬†Between stone teeth and corncob pipe, the snowman would tell us: “Not much.”

So behold the nothingness today and make something of it. It’s all you’ve got to work with, and the sooner you accept that and put a smile on it, the sooner you’ll make sense of your world.