Winter is a thoughtful time. The increased hours of darkness lead to introspection for which writing and reading are perfect companions. Poetry calls to us from all kinds of places and seasonal celebrations occur in many different traditions. Snow, cold, and darkness encourage us to create deeply-felt ways to connect, rejoice, and find warmth.
I’ve been thinking about December, about what draws me into a wintery scene and why. I asked others which poets they tended to read in winter. The answers I received ranged from Robert Frost (my own initial thought) to poets as varied as Basho, Robert Bly, Don Ford, Christina Rossetti, Carl Sandberg, Wallace Stevens, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Wilbur. I also thought about the many winter-themed poems that arrive in Every Day Poets’ submissions.
Recreation, through poetry, of those mid-winter moments that touch our hearts can be more difficult than we expect. Those images that we, individually, equate with the perfect winter scene may be so familiar that we forget the necessity of applying that image in such a way as to offer the reader an unmistakable emotional jolt. The poet is called upon to find a way to link their vision to something specific enough that the reader’s interest is piqued, something that pulls the reader into the scene as if the author’s hand reached out and took their arm. That cannot be done if the poem’s wording is too vague or generic.
Let’s take a look at one of the best-loved winter poems. Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening has several North American winter-themed hallmarks: snow, frozen lake, darkest evening of the year, harness bells, sleep. Woods in the snow are romantic and conjure the best of childhood memories and Currier and Ives prints. Frost touches our hearts with subtle longing at the end:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The details he plies to get us to that place of longing are clear, succinct, and fully invested in that moment in the snowy woods. Frost uses rhymed quatrains, but we don’t really notice the scheme because he has used just the right words in just the right places. He puts the reader into a dreamy midwinter state by focusing on a specific moment that expands from the man on the horse to the surrounding woods, village, and miles ahead. He holds us in that moment, then carries us away. Frost conjures up not only the image of the snowy woods, but the sounds of winter (harness bells, wind) and the thoughtful observance of the winter solstice.
Let’s look at another of Frost’s pieces: Dust of Snow. This short poem, an epigram, consists of two rhymed quatrains. It focuses on a smaller moment than Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening but offers a nice little twist:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
Frost once again enchants the reader with snow, but this time the landscape is much narrower and goes straight to the heart. He takes the potential of one small moment and uses it to nudge the reader to consider that sometimes we just need a knock on the head. Or an unexpected dusting of snow.
Fellow EDP editor Constance Brewer suggested I take a look at Robert Penn Warren’s Trying to Tell You Something, one of her favorites. The poem begins thus:
All things lean at you, and some are
Trying to tell you something, though of some
The heart is too full for speech…..
This is exactly the feeling that I identify with winter introspection. Warren’s poem, written in unrhymed couplets, focuses on an oak, reinforced with metal cables, atop a hill in December:
It stands alone in a world of whiteness. The moon is full.
You can hear the stars crackle in their high brightness.
The poem propels the reader far beyond that hilltop to consider what matters at the end of a long life. Unlike the Frost examples, which begin with a specific image, Warren begins with all things, then pulls us in to be next to that great oak, then pushes us back out – expand, contract, expand, contract – like the cables supporting the old oak in the harsh cold. The poem pulsates.
Pulse. Expansion. Contraction. A twist. Crystal-clear moments. These are the things that draw us into the poems we love to curl up with in winter. Why not revisit some of your favorites while the snow flies outside your window and see what makes them work? Then try your hand at some wintery verse of your own.