Flowers in the Snow: Season and Sense in Poetry (adapted from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism)

—In his book Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye argued that poetry (and art in general) when taken as a whole express the totality of human experience, including our inner, subjective responses to our experience.

—To put this in Frye’s own words, literature is “a total form and literary experience as part of the continuum of life, in which one of the poet’s functions is to visualize the goals of human work” (Anatomy of Criticism, 115).

Frye saw this “continuum of life” in terms of interlocking cycles of experience that are broadly shared by human beings. These cycles take on two different shapes: recurrent patterns in nature (turning of the seasons, phases of the moon, day to night) and the linear progression from birth to death. According to Frye, literature as a whole is an “encyclopedia” of human experience, mapped in terms of these interlocking and overlapping patterns.

—These natural cycles provide a rich vocabulary of images, sounds, and other sensations that poets use as “natural symbols” to bridge the gap between their own particular insight and experience and the shared experience of human beings in general. We have come to associate sunrise with hope and expectation, for instance—much the same with images of spring, like budding leaves or new-grown grass.  Here is a rough (and very incomplete) index of images and settings that are often used in poetry to evoke particular phases of these natural cycles.

Frye graph

Before continuing, I should note that the index above, like much of Frye’s anatomy, is somewhat culture-bound. The conception of “seasons” in his anatomy probably applies most effectively the literature of a Euro-North American culture where the change of seasons (and the relationship of those seasons to agriculture) was a crucial element of their experience–not to mention more or less the norm. With that limitation in mind, we can think of a poem as an “entry” that catalogues a particular human experience on these overlapping or intersecting time lines.

—The “seasonal” profile of a poem is rarely simple, however. We find very few poems that are pure “spring” or pure “sunset” in their seasonal evocations or in the emotional values associated with them. And as the index above suggests, there are both cyclical (repeating) elements to the timeline (season, time of day) as well as linear ones–which themselves can represent the birth-to-death story of a community or a civilization as well as that of an individual person. (Think of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” as an illustration of some of these points.) Often these different cycles overlap in ways that produce complex tensions, especially in the emotional responses they evoke.

Let’s consider the “life-cycle” elements (including their emotional or experiential correlatives) of a hypothetical poem. In this poem a young woman, expecting her first child, stands at the grave of her mother. It’s winter, but the sun has been up a couple of hours and has melted away the snow to reveal the now-dried-out remains of flowers that had been placed on the grave, some months earlier—perhaps at the funeral of the woman’s mother. As the cold wind rustles the desiccated remains of the memorial flowers, it makes a sound that reminds the young woman of “the voices of adults as they try not to wake the children.”

Obviously, the “seasonal” aspects of this poem are complex, and distributed in interesting ways.

  • —First, the main character (the pregnant young woman) embodies in her person both summer (her youth) and spring (the new life she is carrying).
  • —The seasonal setting is winter, associated with death. This is reinforced by the dried-out flowers on the grave.
  • —However, the time of day is morning, and the warmth of the sun has melted away the snow, in a kind of anticipation of a spring that is yet to come, but some time in the future.
  • —Finally, we need to figure out what to do with the metaphor in which the dead flowers take on the life and voice of adults “whispering so as not to wake the children.”

—As we can see from our hypothetical example, all elements of a poem don’t necessary line up perfectly according to this matrix. In most poems (most interesting ones, at least) there is a dominant season, but there are also elements that provide tension or opposition to make the emotions of the poem more complex. A “winter” poem for instance may still have suggestions of hope (associated with spring), just as a “summer” poem may have dark anticipations of autumn or even winter.

In the case of our hypothetical poem, the young woman’s sadness at her mother’s passing is countered by her anticipation and hope for the new life she is carrying. And the seasonal imagery of the poem (not just winter, but morning, melting snow) provides a concrete trigger for this mixed set of emotions.

—Such complexities are not a defect in the poem; they help hold the reader’s attention and engage the reader’s experience and emotion across a wider spectrum than a less complicated set of images might.

Let’s look at one more example that may help illustrate the usefulness of paying attention to the seasonal aspects of a poem–Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Some may know the poem by heart, but here it is:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
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.

This is clearly a “winter” poem (and a “night” one), beginning with the title. Furthermore the setting–an isolated wood–clearly evokes the scene of the “winter waste,” and the speaker tells us s/he is alone except for the impatient and puzzled horse drawing the carriage. Using the index above we would, in other words, expect this to be a poem about death, or at least the contemplation of dying.

And certainly if we were reading the poem in terms of the linear time line of the individual human life cycle, we would be directed toward that idea. I am guessing that is why so many readers of the poem infer that the speaker is either an old man approaching death or someone contemplating suicide. (The “lovely, dark, and deep” line makes the idea of death–whether or not by suicide–actually seem seductive and comforting.)

But if we put these symbolic associations up against the cyclical implications of the poem’s details, a more complex and interesting picture emerges. That “darkest evening of the year,” of course, is the winter solstice, the date on the calendar with the fewest minutes of sunlight. But that is as much a moment of beginning as much as of an end; from there the days only get longer. Spring is still a long way off, but the speaker’s foreknowledge of this fact, of the ever-turning cycle of the seasons, focuses his attention on what is yet to come, to be done, to be experienced.

It’s also the case, examining the grid above, that the relative isolation of the speaker is something usually associated with early childhood and its pre-social consciousness, as well as with the stages at the end of the life cycle, as the individual faces his or her own mortality with an increasing sense of aloneness. In other words the speaker is poised in a moment that suggests either the oblivion of death or a retreat to infancy (an extreme ending or beginning, of which the winter solstice is both).

That the speaker ends the poem with a sense of social obligations (“But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep”) suggests that he or she is anticipating or identifying with the middle phases of the life cycle–most likely late summer or early fall, in which the full obligations and powers of adulthood are primary. Even in the isolation of the “winter waste” or poised at the birth of a new calendar cycle, the narrator retains a peripheral awareness of the obligations and rules of social life, including property relations (“Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village though”).  He resolves to move on, into the new year and toward that network of relationships associated with middle adulthood and settled civilization.

I’m not claiming that my analysis here is either complete or superior to other takes on Frost’s poem. In some ways it may not add much to your own interpretation or understanding.  My point has been to show us how an awareness of Frye’s seasonal schema can help us arrive at an understanding of the poem’s inner dynamics, and to become more conscious about our own meaning-making processes as we read. It may feel obvious and intuitive (“Well, of course that ‘darkest night of the year’ can suggest death!”), but that’s part of Frye’s point–in a sense we are wired by our own experience to make these symbolic inferences. But a poem gathers its power and mystery not by being any one thing or completely of any one season, but rather by overlaying, juxtaposing, and sometimes ironically reversing the powerful “natural” symbolism of the cycle of the seasons.

Frost, Robert.  “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” 1923. In The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed.  Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1969.

Frye, Northrop.  Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957.


Of Chickens, Wheelbarrows, and Little Red Books: William Carlos Williams in China

Way back in 1982-1983 I was a Visiting Professor of English at a university in Xi’an, China—an experience that was eye-opening, maddening, exhilarating, and puzzling depending on the day or the moment. It’s hard to explain the challenge of bridging the gap between Twentieth-Century American literature and students whose upbringing (both at home and at school) had been deeply imbued with Marxist and Maoist principles as well as with a healthy dose of old-school Confucianism.

The intellectual, artistic, and psychological angst of Modernist writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Pound, and Eliot struck them as trivial and overwrought—hopelessly decadent and bourgeois, to use my students’ Marxist terminology. However, the class (twenty or so undergraduate English majors, some of the best and the brightest that the Chinese education system had to offer) lit up with excitement and understanding when the syllabus brought us to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

Maybe you know the poem. Written in 1923, it is usually offered as an example of Imagism, a Modernist movement that aimed at purging poetry of rhetorical excess and ideological baggage. It consists of eight very short lines (nine if you count the title as part of the poem):


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Given this text, maybe you can appreciate my puzzlement at the students’ enthusiasm for the poem and their confidence about the revolutionary views they took it to express. I explained that Williams was a great artistic innovator, but I was not aware of any Marxist leanings on his part (I didn’t mention his association with the Fascistically inclined Ezra Pound). So, probing a little, I asked them what I still ask any student under such circumstances: “Can you show me where that idea is in the text?”

“It’s obvious!” one of them responded. “The red wheelbarrow! The white chickens! And all depends on THEM!”

At that point I remembered something I had learned from my conversations with my Chinese departmental colleagues, all of whom were members in good standing of the Communist Party. According to Mao’s famous “Little Red Book,” China’s glorious Communist Revolution rested on three pillars: the peasant (farmer), the worker (the industrial laborer), and the soldier. And of course red was from the very beginning the color of the Communist revolution (it’s why we used to call them “Reds”).

All at once I saw the poem as my students saw it (well, sort of, anyhow): that wheelbarrow represented the urban worker-builder, and the “white chickens” stood for the farmer-peasant. And didn’t the poem begin with the image of a “red” object, and didn’t it say in the first line that “so much depended” on these groups, just as revolutionary theory insisted? Of course the figure of the soldier was absent, but that was not enough to ruin what seemed like a good interpretation.

I’m probably going to disappoint by sidestepping the question of whether I truly think my students’ reading of the poem was a “good” one (or a “valid” one, to use E. D. Hirsch’s terminology). Based on my knowledge of the author and his historical context, I do believe that my students’ interpretation was one that William Carlos Williams did not intend and probably could not have foreseen. But rather than evaluate their response to the poem, I want to suggest some things it reveals about the process of interpretation itself.

Most disagreements about interpretation arise from differences in how readers process the symbolic possibilities they perceive in otherwise concrete language. If we think of Williams’ poem as a photograph, there’s not a lot of room for argument about what’s in the frame: red wheelbarrow, white chickens, the glazing after-effects of a recent rain. And it’s important to remember that sometimes red is just a color and a chicken is just a chicken, and to allow for that possibility. (In fact, I think that such a literal understanding—an appreciation of the image for its own sake—was close to what Williams had in mind when he wrote this vivid little poem.)

But human beings are symbol-making and symbol-reading creatures, and we attach symbolic inferences of all kinds to various concrete objects and concrete properties (like color, for instance). The problem is that not all of these symbolic inferences are of the same type. Some of them are more stable across time and culture, and across the bridge between writer and reader, than others.

Most literature handbooks distinguish among three basic levels of symbolism that can attach to concrete objects and properties: (1) universal or natural; (2) conventional or cultural; and (3) poetic or literary.

Universal or natural symbolism (I prefer the latter term) arises from some intrinsic quality of, or association with, an object that any human being might recognize, regardless of time or culture. Sunrises and sunsets naturally suggest beginnings and endings, respectively; the image of a heart naturally suggests love and other strong emotions (we can physically feel the pressure in our chest when our hearts beat faster or harder when we are experiencing intense feelings); water, being necessary to all human beings, is a natural symbol for life; and so on.

Conventional or cultural symbolism, in contrast, arises among particular groups of people, as a result of shared (but not universal) experience or social agreement. For citizens of the United States in particular, the eagle has become a conventional symbol of the national spirit. This is not so much because of any “natural” qualities we might admire in it as a creature (there are many animals that we might admire for similar reasons). Its power derives from the fact that as a culture we have agreed to treat the eagle in this symbolic way, and because we a taught to do so in all kinds of ways–not least through its image on such other symbolic objects as flags and currency. (Think of how different things would be if Benjamin Franklin had prevailed in his nomination of the turkey as our national bird.)

In other words, conventional symbols are more of an “in-group” thing than natural symbols. They are part of our “native language,” so to speak, so while they might seem “natural” to us they don’t necessarily apply or make intuitive sense to people outside our group or culture.

Finally, there are what we might call poetic or literary symbolic associations. These are still narrower, and involve specific knowledge of a literary tradition or the work of a particular writer. Sometimes symbolism of this sort verges on what we might elsewhere call literary allusion. The figure of a young man thoughtfully holding a skull-like object in his hand might symbolize tortured indecision by reminding us of the pose of Hamlet in Act 5, Scene I of Shakespeare’s play. In some cases a poet will develop a powerful personal mythology that piggy-backs on, but goes beyond, natural or conventional symbolic usages–consider for instance Walt Whitman’s use of blades of grass as metaphorical tongues (and, by extension, poems and speakers of poems) in Stanza 6 of “Song of Myself.”

This is a long way round to making my point about my Chinese students and their interpretation of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I think we can see from this discussion that their reading of the poem depended on a conventional symbolic inference that, however powerful and obvious for them, was probably not shared by the poem’s author. The result was a kind of awkward alignment between William Carlos Williams’ creation of the poem and their experience of it.

I think it’s important to note that this awkwardness did not come from their misreading of the poem as such; had the exact same poem been written by a writer in their own tradition, there would have been nothing remarkable or controversial about their interpretation. The awkwardness came, rather, from their simply being too eager to attach conventional symbolic significance to the poem’s details.

Let’s pull back and look again at the details of the poem: setting aside the colors of the named objects, we have the wheelbarrow and some chickens. These are simple objects, associated with basic human needs–in the case of the wheelbarrow, the need to make physical labor less punishing, and in the case of the chickens, the need to produce food. If these objects “symbolize” anything at the natural or universal level, I suppose we could say they represent the basic human needs or desires to conserve energy and to sustain life.

We are also talking about a way of life in which these needs are met in a very direct way; we’re talking about people who are hauling dirt or bricks or some other kind of physical load, not folks whose ease of work depends on a faster computer chip. And we’re talking not talking about chickens in a Perdue processing facility, whose parts will appear shrink-wrapped in a grocery cooler days or weeks down the road; most likely the people who own those chickens depend on their eggs for daily food. Add in the poem’s framing line–“so much depends upon”–and we get a sense of how elemental, basic, and necessary these objects are.

Interestingly, considering the literal and the “naturally symbolic” possibilities of these objects produces some inferences that are not that distant from the conventional symbolism my students attached to the poem. Clearly, the poem is encouraging us to see value, even beauty, in these simple objects–and, by extension, in the simple lives we may infer that they are part of.

The “natural” symbolism of the poem may not imply the sort of Marxist revolutionary narrative that my students saw in it. But certainly the poem emphasizes the importance of human labor at the bottom rungs of the system of production–an emphasis that resonates with Marxist theory. So my students were not so far off after all; they simply were getting ahead of themselves and ahead of the poem, trying to do calculus without first having considered the algebra.

In my experience, this is what often happens when people are too eager to get to what they perceive as the endgame of the poem’s “meaning” or “interpretation.” Instead, I like to encourage readers to spend more time absorbing their experience of the poem at the most basic, literal level possible–to visualize the poem in the imagination, as a photograph, a short film, a conversation, whatever seems best to capture the scope and nature of the poem’s scenario. Then we can move through the various levels of the poem’s possible meanings, taking things in the following order and going as far as we find interesting or productive:

  1. Fully consider (that is, visualize, see, hear, taste, touch) in your imagination the literal, concrete elements of the poem before focusing on any symbolic associations suggested by elements of the poem.
  2. Fully consider any natural or universal symbolic associations before focusing on any conventional / cultural ones.
  3. Fully consider any conventional / cultural symbolic possibilities before focusing on any poetic / literary ones.

In fact it’s a good thing to remember that most poems (like Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”) aim first and foremost to give us an experience and only secondarily to communicate an idea or a meaning. This means we should linger as long as we can on the concrete details of the poem, until we can close our eyes and see the poem as a photograph or a short film in our minds. Then such things as symbols and interpretation can arise more naturally from our experience of the poem, rather than substituting for that experience or leaping ahead of it.

Popcorn-Huffing Mouth Breathers: Or, A Not-So-Simple Answer to a Seemingly Simple Question

If you’re an English major (or an English teacher), from time to time you may hear questions like the following from folks from outside the literary-industrial complex:  “What is it with poets, anyhow?  Why can’t they just say straight out what they mean?” Such challenges imply that everyday language is transparent and straightforward, and doesn’t require the sort of interpretation that “literary” language does.

But that implication would be wrong. Everyday communication regularly requires us to follow inferences, to grasp unspoken meanings, to attend the connotations as well as the “dictionary meanings” of words and phrases. The rhetorical context may be different from that of the classroom setting, or that of absorbing a poem at one’s leisure while sitting on a park bench; but the basic properties of language—as well as the basic skills involved—are remarkably similar.

For purposes of illustration, let’s consider an actual conversation I overheard in a restaurant. It was about 3 PM on a Saturday afternoon, and in the booth behind me a couple (a man and a woman) were discussing their plans for the evening. It was mostly unremarkable small talk, until my ears perked up at the following exchange:

SHE: Well, what about going to a movie?
HE: What, and sit in the dark with a bunch of overweight, popcorn-huffing mouth-breathers?

This exchange may not seem at all like poetry, but bear with me for a moment. First, you will notice that the man has answered the woman’s question with a question—and a rhetorical one at that. Second, his response conveys both less and more information than a literal, straightforward answer to her question would have. Where either a simple “yes” or “no” would have been sufficient, he constructs a vivid hypothetical scenario, with elements of setting, character, and direct appeals to the senses (can’t you almost smell that popcorn?).

Admittedly this is a purposefully selected rather than random sample of everyday language, but if you listen closely for a day I think you’ll find some of the properties I’ve just noted in a significant amount of your casual day-to-day conversations. And while I wouldn’t call the man’s response poetry exactly, I think it displays a couple poetic characteristics.

First, the man’s way of answering the woman’s question is styled. Like a boy who writes his name while urinating in a snowbank, he is doing something more than performing a mere function, communicative or otherwise. To put it simply, he has taken a job (answering a direct question) and turned it into a kind of semi-purposeful play. As a result, his response carries what I would call a styling surplus, which is to say that he makes an extra effort to adorn, dress up, his language. This “surplus” includes both the seemingly extraneous detail of those “overweight popcorn-huffing mouth-breathers” and the formal indirection of his response—that is, answering a direct question with a rhetorical one.

Second, this way of answering (or not exactly answering) the question requires or invites an activity on the part of the listener or reader that would not otherwise be necessary: because the man has not answered the woman’s question directly (despite the styling surplus, he has given less information than the question asked for), the listener must infer his meaning from the seemingly extraneous information he has provided. In other words, the listener must interpret his response to arrive at some guess as to his meaning.

In this case the job of interpretation is not particularly difficult. We can pretty reliably infer the speaker’s preferences. But the styling surplus of his response has a curious effect: in a sense, it invites us to explore topics beyond the simple question of whether he wants to go to a movie.

For instance, his statement might allow us to make inferences as to his attitudes, values, and personality. (Most obviously it might suggest antisocial tendencies or possible prejudices regarding body types and socioeconomic class.) If you imagine yourself as the woman in this exchange, there might be enough in this brief, indirect answer to make you consider getting out of the relationship, now!

In short the manner and form of the man’s answer opens up a surplus of interpretive possibility that a more literal, to-the-point response would not have suggested.

What is more, this interpretive surplus is to a great extent a consequence of the styling surplus we already noted. By responding in a way that provides both less and more information than a literal answer would require, and by creatively shaping his response to convey a strong but implicit sense of mood, attitude, and even character on his part, he has invited us to read between (or beyond, or beneath) the lines of what he has actually said.

Now, I’m not saying that the possible inferences I’ve drawn regarding the speaker’s character are necessarily accurate; and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to send the message that he is an antisocial, prejudiced boor. My point is that his vivid styling of his response creates for us a rich moment of interpretation, regardless of his intentions.  And in that sense I would say that his sentence has significant poetic or literary properties.

But is it poetry? Is it literature? I would probably say not. I would save those descriptors for texts or utterances where there seems to be an intentional, concentrated or sustained presence of the effects I have just described. But even everyday language—such as the overheard conversation I’ve been discussing here—is frequently marked by the kind of styling that engages our attention and interpretive energies in the same way that “literary” texts do.