Wallace Stevens & Zen

Jerry Griswold
24 min readSep 9, 2021


[My essay “Zen Poetry, American Criticism, American Poetry Zen Criticism: Robert Aitken, Basho, and Wallace Stevens” from “Zen in American Life and Letters,” ed. Robert S. Ellwood. Interplay 6 (Proceedings of Colloquia in Comparative Literature and the Arts, University of Southern California). Malibu: Udena Publications, 1987 (Pp. 1–15).]

Zen resists literary criticism. This is part of resistance to critical discourse in general, to interpretations and explanations of any sort. It is worth remembering, in this regard, that Zen Buddhism traces its origin to the Flower Sermon when the Buddha, instead of delivering his customary philosophic talk, simply twirled a flower in his fingers; Maha-Kashapa understood this sermon and smiled, and the Buddha acknowledged this understanding of what is “not expressed by words and beyond explanation.”

Numerous stories in the Zen classics tell of great critics undone by meetings with Zen adepts.¹ The story of Tokusan is one of these. Tokusan, reported to have been one of the greatest interpreters of the Diamond Sutra, once encountered an old woman selling tea. She asked about the large bundle he was carrying on his back, and he explained it was his commentary on the sutra, written after many years of work. She reminded him of a passage in the sutra which says, “The past mind cannot be held, the present mind cannot be held, and the future mind cannot be held.” Then she asked with which mind he proposed to take the tea. Tokusan was flummoxed, and he soon took up study with the Zen master Ryutan. Some years later, it is reported, Tokusan burned his commentaries.

At other times, it is not the interpreter but the very act of interpretation that is derided in Zen anecdotes. There is, for example, the story of the one-eyed monk who engaged a visiting monk in a wordless dharma combat, a traditional form of debate in which one’s understanding of Zen is demonstrated. After the debate, the visitor reported to another that he had been defeated by the one-eyed monk:

First I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist at my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won.

The one-eyed monk had a different account of this wordless dharma combat:

The minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we have only three eyes. So I got mad and started to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it.

Certainly part of this suspicion of interpreters and interpretation serves a pedagogical purpose. It is difficult to teach individuals about emptiness and egolessness who are full of opinions and themselves. This is, of course, the reason — if you will excuse another Zen anecdote — why at the turn of the century the Japanese master Nan-in poured tea for a college professor until the cup overflowed and the professor protested. “Like this cup,” Nan-in told him, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

But there is, I believe, an ever deeper reason behind Zen’s resistance to critical discourse. What is involved here is the critical act itself, something suggested in a poem by Richard Brautigan titled “Critical Can Opener”:

There is something wrong
with this poem. Can you
find it?²

In terms of what I have to say, it matters very little whether Brautigan had said there is something right with this poem or something haunting or something moving or any of a thousand different things.

At its very deepest levels, most literary criticism (or any other form of the critical act) arises from an existential dis-ease. There is an apartness. And there is a reaction to the posited other. Again, it matters very little whether this reaction is approval or disapproval, the transports of joy, appetitive desire, or anything else.

This existential dis-ease, this reactive apartness is, of course, a recognition that forms a cornerstone of Buddhist thought. It is, in fact, the Great Problem which Buddhist proposes to cure. From the point of view of Buddhism, this existential moment of dis-ease and apartness is something like a vertigo in which the now separate ego feels uncomfortable; and in its discomfort the ego scrambles to make sense of things, to protect itself, to get its bearings. The ego creates its coordinates — its north, south, east and west; it’s night and day; it’s now and then; its thousands of contraries. The ego creates, in short, its grand interpretational cobweb through which life is usually seen. In Buddhism the cure of the root of this existential dis-ease sweeps away the cobwebs of the interpretation and the primordial realm of suchness, the world before words, is seen as it is.

Criticism, then, is a symptom of this dis-ease. From the point of view of Zen, it is the result of an unfortunate and human predilection to leave the present to “chase ghosts” —

A piece of green pepper
off the wooden salad bowl:
so what?
(Brautigan, “Haiku Ambulance”)³

Criticism seems to point away from enlightenment which, as Dogen says, can be achieved if you “cease to cherish opinions.”

Nonetheless, critical discourse (interpretation, explanation) has a place in Zen. It must fail. This is the recognition towards which most beginning koans tend. The complete exhaustion of critical discourse provides the opportunity for transcendence, the shift to a different plane, to what D.T. Suzuki calls (after considering whether Zen is nihilistic) a “higher affirmation.”

The movement from existential dis-ease, to reactive apartness, to critical discourse, to the complete failure and transcendence of criticism is a very fancy way of talking about what is shown in that series of pictures known as “The Ten Bulls” or “The Oxherding Pictures.” And perhaps it is worth noting that these describe a cycle that does not occur just once but moment-by-moment, over and over again. From the point of view of these pictures, from the point of view of the learner, from the point of view of the “gradualist,” what is worth noting is something has to be lost before it is found and before losing-and-finding is transcended.

Critical discourse, then, is two things. From an absolute perspective it is a symptom of the dis-ease referred to in the first of the Buddha’s noble truths. From a relative perspective, criticism and its complete failure are an important episode, not to be discounted, in the cyclic search described in “The Oxherding Pictures.”

In its resistance to critical discourse, Zen has developed unique art forms. What is conspicuous about much of Zen poetry, for example, is its inaccessibility to traditional kinds of literary criticism. I take as my model Basho’s famous haiku:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

When this poem is approached with the conventional tools of literary criticism, one runs into a wall. There is nothing to interpret. There are no symbols to read. There is no meaning to “get.”

To be sure, a critic can try. The old pond can be called the world, and the poet (like the frog) can be said to jump in. Or the old pond can be seen as the mind, and the sound of frog’s jumping can be said to invade it. There are a number of different forays that might be attempted in this manner, but the teacher who advances these interpretations in a literature class soon receives a reproof. “Where did you get that?” the students will impatiently ask. “There is nothing in the poem that suggests that.” And they are right. The poem itself suggests none of these analogues, and the critic who has set off in this direction has dressed the naked thing in the Emperor’s new clothes.

There is, perhaps, nothing so much like Basho’s poem as our nursery rhymes and the interpretational straits into which they put literary critics:

Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn.
The sheep’s in the meadow.
The cow’s in the corn.

What does one say about that? Any critic who has made the strong resolution to interpret that verse eventually arrives at an exasperating impasse. It is, to use a Zen expression, like a mosquito biting an iron bull.

Leave it to an American to enter where angels fear to tread. The American in this case is Robert Aitken, and in his book, A Zen Wave,⁴ he interprets and explains Basho’s haiku in terms of Zen.

Aitken provides a good opportunity and example in a discussion of the relationship between literary criticism and Zen because Aitken possesses combined credentials in both areas. During World War II, Aitken was interned in Japan and had the good fortune to be in the same camp with R. H. Blyth, the author of Zen in English Literature and the Oriental Classics.⁵ Through Blyth, Aitken developed an interest in both Zen and literature. Later, he took an undergraduate degree in English literature at the University of Hawaii, and some years later an M.A. in Japanese literature at the same University, writing a dissertation on Basho’s haiku. At the same time and afterward, Aitken was a student in both Japan and America under Yamada Koun Roshi, Yasutani Roshi, and Nakagawa Soen Roshi. In 1959 he established a Zen organization in Hawaii, the Diamond Sangha, and in 1974 he became a Roshi himself upon receiving authorization to teach from Yamada Roshi.

In A Zen Wave Aitken discusses twenty-six of Basho’s haiku and suggests that they give true expression of Zen. Strictly speaking, as Aitken says, this is not a book of literary criticism; instead, it is a collection of his teisho, the traditional lectures or sermons that a teacher delivers to his assembled students about some aspect of Zen. But while the book is not the kind of traditional literary criticism we might find, say, in a university press volume on Basho, it is still a very interesting species of literary criticism that is worth considering in itself. At the same time, it should be said that perhaps no one has had the qualifications or has brought as much sympathetic understanding to Basho as has Aitken Roshi.

When this book was first brought to my attention, a friend offered the observation that “In 150 pages Aitken proves that nothing can be said about Basho’s haiku.” This observation strikes at the heart of what I find interesting in the book — i.e., how Aitken has created a literary criticism that cancels itself out. Perhaps the easiest way to explain how he does this is to briefly sketch his discussion of Basho’s most famous haiku (“The Old Pond”), and then to consider how he employs the techniques that he debunks elsewhere in the book.

Aitken begins by associating “the old pond” of the poem with the metaphor of Zen teachers who describe the mind ripened by zazen with an expanse of untroubled water. He compares Basho’s hearing the frog jump in the pond with the Buddha’s sighting of the morning star — both triggered an enlightenment experience. The last line of the haiku, “the sound of water,” reminds Aitken of the story of the student who, after many years of effort, solved a koan while he was sweeping and heard the sound of a stone striking a fence. Finally, Aitken suggests that this poem exhibits mature realization by comparing this haiku to an earlier one where, Aitken argues, Basho has grasped the notion of primordial emptiness but has not yet made the vivid return to the world of phenomena that he makes in this poem.

This summary, I must say, does a great disservice because it does not indicate the beauty and persuasiveness of Aitken’s full discussion. I mean, simply, to suggest the ways he explains the poem — through associations, comparisons, conceptualizations, and biographical speculations.

What is interesting about Aitken’s methodology is that it is completely at odds with what he identifies elsewhere in his book as the spirit of the haiku and of Zen. In his Introduction, Aitken links Zen with the haiku’s development as an independent form of art free from “the interplay of cultural and literary association…This was the development toward Zen, which emphasizes the full and complete presentation of the whole, with no burden of associational meaning whatever”; and later in the book he observes that “Basho’s world of poetry is the world of experience, not intellectual associations.” These are striking comments, of course, because when Aitken discusses the poem he does make use of such associations and comparisons: the old pond and Zen teachers speaking of the untroubled water of the mind, the frog and the morning star seen by the Buddha, the sound of the water and the sound heard by the sweeping student. But this is not all. “Comparisons are odious,” Aitken says elsewhere in the book, “They have no metaphoric content, no inner life. They are entirely conceptual, for they place things and people in mental categories, by their very nature superficial and destructive.” While Aitken explains the poem and uses Buddhist concepts to do so and suggests that his poem shows Basho’s evolution from his earlier verse, he states elsewhere in the book that (with Zen) the haiku are concerned with innocent presentation of facts, that they “are completely pure, with no conceptual element at all,” and that they do not suggest any evolutionary context in themselves.

I do not mean to suggest by this that Aiken is inconsistent or does not practices what he preaches; instead, I believe Aitken has created something very interesting: a criticism that cancels itself out. Perhaps the most revealing statement in the book is made in Aitken’s comment about this haiku:

Matsutake! [The fungus on the pine tree]
A leaf from an unknown tree
Stuck fast.

The revealing statement appears in Aitken’s parentheses in his response to this verse: “There is only the matsutake with a strange leaf stuck to it. Assumptions, explanations (including this chapter), extrapolations, personal associations — all add weight, and the experience will not rise.” Aitken’s parenthetical remark suggests how his own critical enterprise caves in upon itself; it is a finger at the moon, but also a finger that dissolves itself so that it won’t be mistaken for the moon.

It is worthwhile, at this point, to mention (as does the poet W.S. Merwin in his foreword to Aitken’s book) the Zen distinction between the Absolute and the Relative. From the Absolute point of view, Zen is unteachable, undefinable, unnameable; nonetheless, to help others discover this Absolute, Zen teachers reemerge in the Relative — they make use of distinction, phenomena, practice, and words as a means that might ultimately indicate their invisible and inexpressible origin. The relationship of the Absolute and the Relative (emptiness and form) is an important issue but another one; what I mean to stress is that the Relative is used as an expedient means to finally transcend the Relative.

This is the criticism that cancels itself out. The literary criticism that Aitken practices on Basho’s haiku about the old pond is Relative means. But it is undermined by Absolute observations that are made elsewhere, and this very undermining opens up the possibility of transcending the Relative.

This is a very theoretical way of saying what is expressed in a Zen story. To decide who his successor should be, the Fifth Patriarch of Zen created a poetry contest. The first poem submitted was:

The body is the Bodhi-Tree;
The soul is like a mirror bright;
Take heed to always keep it clean,
And let no dust collect upon it.

The second poem submitted was judged to give better expression to Zen:

The Bodhi is not like a tree;
The mirror bright is nowhere shining;
As there is nothing from the first,
Where does dust collect?

I understand that this story is sometimes used as a koan and that one piece of advice students of koan are given is that their attention must not rest solely on the conclusion but on the whole of the story, on the whole as exhibiting a necessary process. Like that series of pictures known as “Ten Bulls,” every step in this story is important; though you arrive at point C, steps A and B are necessary and not to be discounted. To say this differently, the Relative must be worked through before it is transcended and the Absolute is discovered. Understood in this fashion, Aitken’s book is a fine replica of the entirety of this story.

The search for literary analogues to Zen (like the search for Western analogues of any sort of Zen) is an enterprise fraught with dangers. R. H. Blythe’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics provides a notable example. While is this genuinely a valuable and important book, Blyth’s opening words might lead a thoughtful reader to cautiously pause: “Insofar as men live at all, they live by Zen. Wherever there is a poetical action, a religious aspiration, an heroic thought, a union of the nature within a man and the nature without, there is Zen.” It is difficult to completely trust a book of literary analogues to Zen which begins with what seems to be a claim of similarity between Zen and all that is best in the world.

Robert Aitken is another individual who has linked literature and Zen, and in this endeavor he has followed the example of Blyth — an individual whom Aitken much admires and who served as Aitken’s mentor when they were interned together in Japan. But Aitken has been more careful than Blyth. In the opening words of A Zen Wave, Aitken writes:

In 1950 I submitted an M.A. dissertation titled “Basho’s Haiku and Zen” to the University of Hawaii. . . . I learned much from writing it, and an admonition from a member of my thesis committee, Cheuk-woon Taam, stands out in my mind. He said that just because its subject is everywhere, I must be careful not to claim universal manifestation for Zen Buddhism. Professor Taam’s words are very much to the point. Zen Buddhism does not pervade the cosmos. It presents essential nature — universal mind — but it does so as a particular teaching. Confusing the specific teaching with its vast and undifferentiated subject is a trap that has caught several tigers.

Since Aitken insists on the need for selectivity in finding literary analogues to Zen, it is worth noting the American poems and poets he has chosen and not chosen to discuss in this manner. One would think, in light of Aitken’s work with Basho, that he would be drawn to that kind of poetry which most resembles the spirit of haiku — the poems of the Imagist movement where attention was directed away from the idea and to the object exclusively. The most famous example of this school is William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

But Aitken is not drawn to these poems. Nor is he drawn to the other likely choice — contemporary poets whose relationship to or study of Zen is notable: Gary Snyder or Philip Whalen, for example.

The poet whose work Aitken is drawn to is Wallace Stevens. In his essay “Wallace Stevens and Zen,”⁶ Aitken begins by asserting “there is a profound relationship between Stevens’ work and the teachings of Zen Buddhism.” At the end of his essay, Aitken Roshi says, “Zen teachers from the very beginning peppered their discourses with quotations from such poets as Tu Fu and Basho. . . . am content to acknowledge Stevens as one of the very few great poets who will be a source of endless inspiration for future generations of Western Zen teachers.”

I cannot suggest to you what an initial surprise Aitken’s choice represents without telling you something about Wallace Stevens. For the better part of his life, Stevens was a vice-president at an insurance company, the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He did not publish a book of poems until he was forty-four, and then went on to publish six others and a book of essays; he won the Bollingen Poetry Prize in 1949 and died in 1955. In terms of reputation, Stevens is now generally regarded as one of the two or three most important American poets of the twentieth century.

At first glance, there is nothing to suggest a similarity between Stevens’ work and Zen. His poetry is quite different from the spirit of haiku and from the poetry of the Imagist movement; in fact, Stevens’ poetry is often seen as the opposite, as a poetry of philosophical ideas that Imagism meant to avoid by turning exclusively to the object. And the biographical evidence suggests that Stevens, unlike Snyder or Whalen, had little interest in the Orient and no knowledge of or curiosity about Buddhism and Zen.

What is there in Stevens, then, to suggest Aitken’s attraction to him and the statement that Stevens “will be a source of endless inspiration for future generations of Western Zen teachers”? The answer, I believe, is that Stevens’ poetry is a poetry of epistemological failures. Just as Aitken’s A Zen Wave creates a criticism that fails, Stevens’ poetry provides illustrative failures that point way to what Buddhists call “right thinking.”

Stevens’ poem “The Green Plant” provides an example:

Silence is a shape that has passed.
Otu-bre’s lion-roses have turned to paper
And the shadows of the trees
Are like wrecked umbrellas.

The effete vocabulary of summer
No longer says anything.
The brown at the bottom of red,
The orange far down in yellow,

Are falsifications from a sun
In a mirror, without heat,
In a constant secondariness,
A turning down toward finality —

Except that a green plant glares, as you look
At the legend of the maroon and olive forest,
Glares, outside of the legend, with the barbarous green
Of the harsh reality of which it is part.⁷

It would be easier to explain this poem if we were in Stevens’ New England this autumn. In New England there is a time of year known as “Peak” — the moment when most trees have reached their maximum in terms of fall’s dazzling foliage colors. Weathermen report the movement of Peak from the northern to southern states; but, I should also add, the trees themselves do not seem to pay attention to these bulletins. The peak is something like the very center of autumn, and it is a very emotional time of the year because, in many ways, New Englanders are filled with nostalgia by this reminder of the loss of summer and filled with some dread by this cue that winter is coming. Stevens takes this up in his poem and shows how these emotions create a kind of intellectual overlay that comes between people and their perception of autumn itself.

In something like the first third of the poem, Stevens’ reveals how the present may be overlooked when it is not regarded as itself but as an absence of the past. Then it is not simply a moment in autumn but a time when “the effete vocabulary of summer / No longer says anything.” Then the flowers and trees are not what they are, but — to the person who remembers what they once were — they seem kinds of ruin: “Otu-bre’s lion-roses have turned to paper / And the shadows of the trees / Are like wrecked umbrellas.” The world, in short, is distorted by nostalgia and memory.

In what might be called the middle third of the poem, Stevens shows how the present may be lost when it is not regarded as itself but as a prelude to the future. Then, with a certain amount of rancor and disappointment, the colors of autumn are regarded as deceitful shams and “falsifications” of a sun that promises more than winter will actually deliver. With an eye on the future, the moment is not seen as it is but as presenting evidence of “a turning down toward finality.” The world, in short, is distorted by anticipation and anxiety.

But in the last third of the poem, the mind is arrested by the green plant. Here is something outside of the whirlwind of emotion; unlike what precedes it in the poem, the green plant stands outside of the “legend” created when memory and expectation construe the world in their own fashion. The green plant is not seen in terms of the emotions of its observer but as something of the “reality of which it is a part.”

Stevens’ poem is a kind of echo of a Zen koan. This koan recounts how the master Basho was walking one day with his student Hyakujo when they saw a flock of wild geese flying. Basho asked, “What are they?” and his student replied, “They are wild geese, sir.” Basho asked, “Whither are they flying?” and his student responded, “They have flown away.” At this point, Basho pulled the student’s nose and shouted, “You say they have flown away, but all the same they have been here from the very first.” And Hyakujo had satori.

Stevens’ poem and this koan indicate how, when the world is regarded from the point of view of self interests, individuals create a kind of ghostly architecture which frames the moment with special portals that open on to past and future; through memory and expectation the present is not seen as it is, but in its place are seen the present-that-is-no-longer-the-past and the present-that-will-be-the future. Basho erases this ghostly architecture of self-concern. For him, there is no “away,” no “towards.” There is only this extensive present in this extensive space. Philip Kapleau tells of how Yasutani Roshi spoke of this and explained what makes grasping it difficult:

Yasutani-Roshi made a dot on the blackboard and explained that this dot represented their (most men’s) conception of “here and now.” To show the incompleteness of this view, he placed another dot on the board, through which he drew a horizontal line and a vertical one. He then explained that the horizontal line stood for time from the beginningless past to the endless future, and the vertical line for limitless space. The “present moment” of the enlightened man, who stands at this intersection, embraces all these dimensions of time and space.

What I said about Stevens’ “The Green Plant” suggests, I hope, why Aitken sees a link between Stevens’ poetry and Zen: it is a poetry of epistemological failures that allows for the discovery of what Buddhists call “right thinking.” I would like to turn now to another poem which requires more patience and perseverance to understand, Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” because it is one that Aitken has particularly singled out and discussed:

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.

Aitken’s essay “Wallace Stevens and Zen” is essentially an analysis of this poem. I would like to briefly summarize his views. Aitken begins by mentioning that the title refers not to a snowman (something a child might build with great balls of snow and lumps of coal) but to the Snow Man who has “a mind of winter” — that is, what Yasutani Roshi called “a mind of white paper” where there is no intellectual overlay that obscures seeing things as they are. Aitken points out that the Snow Man is concerned “not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind” but simply to hear the actual sound of the place, which is “the sound of a few leaves” and the sound of the wind “blowing in the same bare place”; in other words, the Snow Man aims to avoid projecting or smearing his own feelings on the world and wishes instead for a true perception of the bare place as just phenomena without the intrusions of self. In doing this, Aitken proposes, the Snow Man makes a Zen-like discovery of the primordial emptiness of the universe which is at the same time full of phenomena; the last line of the poem (where the Snow Man beholds the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”), Aitken suggests, is a version of the statement in the Heart Sutra: “Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.”

While Atkins likes this poem, he also suggests that Stevens does not go far enough. By this, Aitken means to distinguish between realization and mature realization in Zen; while Stevens has arrived at the First Principle (the discovery of primordial emptiness), he has not moved on to the second step which involves reemerging in the world of phenomena as the Buddha did when, after his enlightenment under the Boddhi tree, he stood up and walked away. This second step is a necessary one in Zen practice. The student who has solved a beginning koan, for example, discovers the serene reality of nondiscrimination but runs the danger of getting stuck there in a quietistic bliss; for this reason, Zen teachers try to jar such students loose and send them back into the dynamic realm of phenomena by immediately giving them one of a second class of koans — e.g., “What do you do when you reach the top of a hundred-foot pole?” Aitken argues that Stevens does not make this second step in “The Snow Man” but does in another, companion poem (“Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”).

My own view is that Stevens does take that second step and that “The Snow Man” exhibits the kind of mature Zen realization which Aitken speaks of. To see how this is so, it is necessary to view the poem not as a success story, but as something like the other poem we have examined (“The Green Plant”) — i.e., as an illustration of epistemological failure. In other words, I do not read the tone of the poem in the straightforward manner Aitken does but see the poem as does Stevens’ critic Samuel French Morse — as a kind of elaborate joke.⁸

In a number of other poems besides “The Snow Man,” Stevens speaks of the endeavor to see the world as it is and free of projections, but in these poems he goes on to show that this epistemological minimalism results in a very subtle projection of minimalism upon the world. For Stevens, reality and imagination are interdependent. In the aptly titled “The Plain Sense of Things,” Stevens speaks of the attempt to see the world as it is and free of imaginings, but then he notes “the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined.” In another poem (“A Quiet Normal Life”), Stevens seems to say that those who attempt to see the world as it is and free of projections are not aware how much they are still projecting; they do not discover but construct worlds of “naught,” and their “actual” is still ablaze “with artifice.” This last poem is very much to the point because it seems to make a direct reference to the earlier written poem “The Snow Man;” when Stevens tries to explain what he means by a “constructed” world of “naught,” he says:

…for example, a world in which, like snow,
He became an inhabitant, obedient
To gallant notions on the part of cold.

These clues begin to suggest how “The Snow Man” may be read as a kind of elaborate joke. It is with something like tongue-in-cheek, then, that Stevens suggests elaborate preparation on the part of the perceiver so he can behold the winter as it is: the perceiver must acquire “a mind of winter,” must be “cold a long time,” must not “think / Of any misery of the wind.” All these complex ceremonials are to lead to a vision of the world as it is and free of projections, but in the end Stevens shows that a covert form of projection still remains — the nothingness in the Snow Man himself is projected upon the world. Stevens says this in the last lines with his very careful choice of words and with his use and lack of use of the article “the”: The Snow Man, who is “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there” (i.e., he perceives no more than what is actually in the world) “and the nothing that is” (i.e., he also perceives the nothing he has projected on the world). Just as a notion of “misery” may be projected upon the sound of the wind or the human sensations of “hot” and “cold” may be projected upon the day, the concept of “nothingness” the Snow Man finds in himself can be and is projected upon a world that is free from it. This is what Stevens means by “constructed” worlds of naught; this is not emptiness discovered but imposed.

While this interpretation presents a view of the poem slightly different from that of Aitken, I would like to suggest that it in no way undermines Aitken’s assertion that the poem is consonant with Zen experience. I have already spoken of the difference between the first step of realization and the second step of mature Zen realization, the discovery of primordial emptiness and reemerging in the world of phenomena. The student who gets stuck between these steps — who so treasures his initial discovery of nothingness that he is unwilling to go beyond it, who holds tightly to this nothingness and smears and projects it upon the world — is said in Zen to make the mistake of “guarding the corpse.” When such a student comes to his teacher and reports he has found “true emptiness,” the teacher is likely to shout “Drop it!” Even the concept of nothingness must be dropped.

This is the state Stevens’ poem describes. “The Snow Man” illustrates an epistemological failure and the shortcomings of “guarding the corpse.” And I suggest that Stevens’ recognition of this argues that “The Snow Man” gives evidence of mature Zen realization in the way Aitken means this term.

As I hope this discussion makes clear, then, I believe Aitken is entirely correct when he calls Stevens “one of the very few great poets who will be an endless source of inspiration for…Western Zen.” But something similar might be said of Aitken himself: by his example, he has advanced the truly remarkable notion that literary criticism, as well, can be a path of discovery in Western Zen.


  1. The Zen stories repeated in this paper, the references to Zen scriptures and the ideas of Dogen, and the remarks made about koan study can be found in or are derived from these principal works: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, no date). The Blue Cliff Record, trans. Thomas and J. C. Cleary (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Books, 1977), three volumes. Three works by D. T. Suzuki: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1964); Studies in Zen (New York: Dell Publishing, 1955); Manual of Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1960). Isshu Muira and Ruth Sasaki, The Zen Koan (New York: Harcourt Brace, no date). Records of Things Heard (The Shobogenzo-Zuimonki of Dogen), trans. Thomas Cleary (Boulder, Colorado: Prajna Press, 1980). Robert Aitken, Taking The Path of Zen (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982). Three Pillars of Zen, compiled and ed. Philip Kapleau (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965). In conformity with present usage, I have avoided footnotes except where they are most necessary.
  2. Richard Brautigan, Rommel Drives into Egypt (New York: Dell Publishing, 1970), p.10.
  3. Richard Brautigan, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (New York: Dell Publishing, 1968), p. 43.
  4. Robert Aitken, A Zen Wave (Tokyo: John Weatherhill, 1978).
  5. R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1942).
  6. The Eastern Buddhist (Spring 1980), vol. XIII, no. 1, pp. 46–51. Reprinted in The Wallace Stevens Journal (Fall 1982), vol. VI, no. 3 & 4, pp. 69–73.
  7. All poems by Wallace Stevens that are quoted and discussed in this paper can be found in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1968): “The Great Plant,” p. 506; “The Snow Man,” pp. 9–10; “The Plain Sense of Things,” pp. 502–503; and “A Quiet Normal Life,” p. 523.
  8. Samuel French Morse, Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life (New York, 1970), p. 118.



Jerry Griswold

former literature professor (San Diego State, UCSD, UCLA, UConn, NUI Galway) and literary journalist (NYTimes, LATimes, & elsewhere)