«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
While this stanza proves the boy's error in anticipating the snowman's death, it also affirms the boy's gesture of personifying the snowman, which seems like an especially poetic gesture. This emphasis on personification invites readers to recognize that they, too, participate in personifying both the snowman and the boy, who is himself merely a poetic figure. Through this realization, the reader may identify herself with the boy, with the speaker, and with Wilbur himself, who, like the reader, personifies the boy, the snowman, and the speaker. Personification—a gesture of projecting or creating personhood—thus becomes a common ground for connection in a poem about loss and death. Personification, as a process of becoming both human-like and connected with others, thus complements the poem's anticipations of death as an absence of connections and meaning. Through his emphasis on personification, Wilbur recasts death's absence of connection and meaning as a potential common ground on which we may establish connections between poetic characters, the poet, and the reader herself. Thus Wilbur suggests that personification, far from being an element of the romantic/sentimental sensibility of outdated poetry, may be an expression of our Levinasian ability "to be able", an imaginative, responsive reaching out to connect with the other ("Time" 42). By portraying the other as a snowman in his poem, Wilbur emphasizes personification as a way of becoming human.
Wilbur's portrayal of personal connections overcoming or recasting death's absence of meaning coincides with Kenneth Burke's theory of identification, which situates "division" as the exigence for identification (RM 22). Burke explains that we may identify two people when they share similar "attitude[s]," "interests," emotions,
and/or actions (RM 55, 20). Such identification, however, involves death-like change:
"the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing's nature before and after the change is an identifying of it" (Burke, RM 20). According to Burke, we must change in a death-like way in order to be connected or identified with others.
Thus Burke concludes that "there is no chance of our keeping apart the meanings of persuasion, identification ('consubstantiality') and communication (the nature of rhetoric as 'addressed')" (RM 46). For Burke, identification aims to invoke connection where, according to Levinas, death renders relationships fundamentally absent. Wilbur's portrayal of the boy's relationship to the snowman coincides with Burkeian identification by emphasizing the common substance of water in the boy's "weep[ing]" and the snowman's "trickle of the purest rain," a substance that expresses their shared grief ("Boy" 3, 14). By presenting the characters' recognitions of loss as also their means of identification, Wilbur illustrates loss in terms of connection while Burke represents identification in terms of death. Wilbur's inversion of Burke's theory suggests that by recasting loss and death in terms of connections, we may recast death as an exigence for connection and therefore meaningful. Wilbur's emphasis on recasting death in terms of connecting with others may express an elegiac function of making death meaningful.
Wilbur complicates Burkeian identification, however, by inviting us first to recognize the boy's fantastical misperception of the snowman—resulting in our distance from or disidentification with the boy—and then inviting us to sympathize with the boy's perspective. The descriptions of the solitary snowman's "standing all alone," and the bitterly cold weather may evoke our sympathy for the snowman, identifying our gaze with the boy's magical or fantastical view even as we simultaneously acknowledge his error (Wilbur, "Boy" 1). In addition, the snowman's insight into "the child at the bright pane surrounded by/Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear" emphasizes the boy's lack of full self-knowledge that seems to apply to other people as well (Wilbur, "Boy" 15-16). The snowman seems to mourn for the boy's—and perhaps humanity's-imperfect gifts" of "warmth," "light," and "love," which are haunted by "fear" and grief (Farrell 86; Wilbur, "Boy" 16). This insight itself seems to affirm the snowman's humanlike form. Thus Wilbur invites us to sympathize with the boy—or even mourn for his lack of knowledge—and ultimately troubles his reader by evoking conflicting attitudes toward the boy by "balanc[ing] feeling and counter feeling" both in his line describing "love" and "fear," and in his rhetorical effects on readers. For Wilbur, such a balance is integral to "honest" and "convincing poetry... which accommodates mixed feelings, clashing ideas, and incongruous images" (Responses 155, 152). In this poem, Wilbur's conflicting effects expose the force of identification—that it can at least coexist with if not overcome our disidentification from the boy's misperception.
Wilbur's portrayal of death and loss as a process of becoming more human demonstrates how personhood arises in response, in "encountering faces" (Levinas, "Dying For" 215). Through his response to the boy, the snowman demonstrates how Levinasian responsibility is embedded in dialogic responses. The poem's two stanzas, one focusing on the boy's inner life and the other focusing on the snowman's response, structurally affirms a dialogic relationship between the two characters. When we readers identify ourselves with the boy's conflicting emotions, we may engage with Wilbur's poem dialogically. Because Wilbur's poem turns on dialogic contrasts not only between ideas, but also between words and images, "Boy at the Window" indicates that dialogic contrasts can be simultaneously poetic and rhetorical.
Personifying Presence: Metapoetics as Ethics The snowman may represent ambiguous presence as both a natural and a humanlike creature, one who is personified and then seems to internalize that personification.
Through his personification of the snowman, Wilbur comments on what it means to be and to become human. Peter Harris recognizes this emphasis on presence as the "major theme of in Wilbur's work," which as a whole "reflects the central tension in Western metaphysics... between being and becoming" (412). In his brief comparison of "Boy at the Window" with Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man,"—a comparison invited by the status of both poems as short anthology pieces by high modernist poets—Philip White suggests that, while Stevens offers "an affirmation of a metaphysics of absence," Wilbur's "poetry, when pressed, implies a metaphysics of presence" (262).10 Wilbur's metaphysics of presence in "Boy at the Window," however, emphasizes how presence is
10. Rodney Stenning Edgecombe also notes the resonances between Stevens's and Wilbur's poems, suggesting that Wilbur's "anthropomorphic fantasy seem[s] to challenge the cold deletions and sterilities of Wallace Stevens's snow man poem..."
always already bound up with absence, how presence is ambiguous and tenuous in the processes of becoming and of dying—which can in fact be the same process, as in the snowman's case.
Wilbur also seems to argue that personification itself is essential to the processes of being and becoming human. In Wilbur's poem, the boy's personification of the snowman seems to bring the snowman to life in a quite literal sense because the second stanza affirms that snowman does have human-like emotions and thoughts. The boy seems to have brought the snowman to life, not only by giving his "frozen... element" human form, but also by loving and grieving for the snowman, emotions which evoke the snowman's similarly human love and grief—and his insights into the complexity of the boy's human emotions (Wilbur, "Boy" 12). Because he creates life-like humanity that, in turn, reflects his own humanity back to him in a magnified way, the boy seems more thoroughly human.
We may view the snowman's insight into the boy's complex emotions as a way of returning the boy's humanizing gaze. Wilbur's affirmation of personification invites us to remember that we also participate in personifying not only the snowman, but also the boy himself, who, until we suspend our disbelief, is only a mere poetic figure instead of a real person. Through our shared acts of personification, we identify ourselves with the boy, the snowman, the speaker, and Wilbur himself. Wilbur's argument about personification may thus offer a counterpart to Stevens's "The Snow Man." Stevens argues, "One must have a mind of winter"—one must have "a mind" of nature instead of personhood—"not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind" and recognize mournful personhood in natural winter (1, 7-8). Wilbur affirms that we view nature through our own human lens, projecting personhood onto nature. Together Stevens and Wilbur suggest that our own humanity obscures our attention to nature's singularity.
While personification may be essential to being and becoming human, it may also be a kind of unifying gesture that turns on indifference that elides non-human alterities.
Nonetheless the ways in which personification proliferate the presence of personhood in Wilbur's lyric situate personification as both a human and a poetic gesture.
Personification seems to be both a humanizing gesture and a poetic gesture in that Wilbur invites us to see the boy as a poet insofar as he creates and personifies the snowman. We readers also participate in the poetic act insofar as we personify the boy and the snowman, thus affirming the presence of personhood in Wilbur's poem, not unlike the ways in which we affirm presence in Dickinson's and Frost's lyrics. Indeed the gestures of personification enacted by the boy, the speaker, Wilbur, and ourselves seem to provide a common ground that allows us to identify ourselves with Wilbur and his characters. By facilitating readers' identification with characters and the poet, personification seems to involve the same kind of human agency or "mastery" that Levinas describes and that Dickinson and Frost express in their poems (Levinas, "Time" 41). The boy's creative acts of building the snowman and then personifying him impose human meaning and form onto nature—i.e. the boy recognizes humanity where it is absent, making a personal relationship with nature. Through such creativity, the boy performs his abilities "to grasp" in the sense of imagining the snowman and shaping the snow to reflect that meaning; he is "master of grasping the possible" by giving the snow human-like form (Levinas, "Time" 41).
Personification itself seems to be a similarly creative gesture that entails recognizing, grasping the possibility of human form where it is absent. Wilbur also seems to create personal relations through the poetic relations he crafts in rhyme patterns, like those between "bear," "prepare," "where," and "stare" ("Boy" 2-3, 5, 7).
The relationships between the words and images that aim to evoke sympathy, mourning, and perhaps even love in Wilbur's poem are personal in that they express Wilbur's own personal idea/emotion—they are personal to Wilbur. These poetic relationships also engage the reader's personal emotions as well, thus connecting Wilbur at least indirectly with his reader through communication. Indeed Wilbur seems to emphasize the personal nature of these relationships by making the personal encounters between the snowman and the boy—which are both connections and disconnections—the focus of his poem.
Wilbur speaks to the ways in which human subjectivity depends both on personal and creative/poetic relations structured by presence and absence.
Because personification and the identifications among characters and readers to which it leads bring such grief and even death to the characters in the poem, Wilbur also reminds us of the risks of poetry and personification—that such creative acts may also be accompanied by death and absence. For example, the boy's personification of the snowman seems risky because he fails to recognize the snowman's essentially natural essence, a failure that seems to threaten the snowman's singularity and, in a more general sense, the singularity of nature as its own, non-human entity. Just as it may be risky to imagine personhood where it is not and may not belong, it is similarly risky not to recognize personhood where it does belong. In her article "Giving an Account of Oneself," Judith Butler observes that our recognition of one another as human is mediated by language and "a set of norms" that determine, along with "epistemological frame[s]... anthropocentric dispositions and cultural frames," if "a given face [will or will not] seem to be a human face to any one of us" (24, 23). The mediated nature of human recognition begs the question "under what conditions do some individuals acquire a face, a legible and visible face, and others do not?" (Butler 23). This question implies the reality that members of oppressed groups are not always recognized as human—that humanity is made absent where in fact it should be present.
Dickinson and Frost demonstrate how this pragmapoeic event may occur in instances where one does not recognize oneself, and Butler emphasizes the dangers of pragmapoeia when it shapes our relationships with other people. Wilbur seems keenly aware that both personification and pragmapoeia can endanger others and ourselves, even while they may also help create beautiful, personal relationships. Wilbur affirms that presence, especially human presence, is always connected with absence. This intimate connection between presence and absence echoes the deflected human presence in Dickinson and Frost, who also affirm the coincidence of absence and presence.
Lyric as a Genre of the Wound Together Dickinson, Frost, and Wilbur demonstrate the wide range of expressions that may imply a sense of loss. Wilbur illustrates a microcosm of loss's affective diversity in his closing line where repetition links conflicting feelings: The snowman grieves "[f]or the child at the bright pane surrounded by/Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear" ("Boy" 15-16). As Wilbur connects emotions that we may assume to be opposites, "love" and "fear," he affirms the deep ambiguity of emotional responses to loss and death ("Boy" 16). By reading Wilbur's poem as affective account of loss, we affirm Wilbur's willingness to engage darker aspects of human life.