A rabbit has stopped on the gravel driveway: imbibing the silence, you stare at spruce needles: --Excerpt from Arthur Sze’s First Snow
I remember when I first learned that the Inuit have around 50 words for snow. At that time, my understanding of snow was limited. It was cold, it was frozen, and if we got enough of it overnight, I didn’t need to go to school the next day. Learning that there were many words to describe snow really challenged my perception of the natural world.
To be able to identify at least 50 different variations of snow means that you are intimately connected to this mineral. (Yes, snow is classified as a mineral because it is a naturally occurring solid with a defined chemical composition.(1)).
If you need to communicate the difference between snow that is crusted on the surface, tlacringit, and powdered snow, tlapa,(2) it means that this difference is important to you. The specificity of language indicates that its form and function impacts your daily life.
When I dug a little deeper into the words we use to define snow, I found that the Inuits were not the only ones with this many words for snow. It turns out that the residents of Sweden have around 25 words for snow, Icelandic people use around 46 different words for snow, and those living in Scotland may have up to 421 words for snow.(3) I will have to note here that there is some debate about this number. But even if they are off by 100 words, that is still a lot of words.
Because of all the different words humans have created to talk about snow, I will assume that there must be hundreds of poems that feature snow. If you think about it, Robert Frost has at least three poems about snow: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, “Snow” and my personal favorite “Dust of Snow”.
“Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost
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.
In order to limit today’s poetic exploration into snow, we are going to just focus on just one type of snow: the first snow.
Poems about First Snow
The first snowfall of the year is especially important. Much like the leaves falling from the trees, the snow is a clear marker that we are heading into the winter months.
The Inuit call the first snow of the year trinkyi, and the Norwegians use the word nysnö. Roger Norling explains nysnö by stating:
“This snow is spiritually quite important, as it transforms the landscape from a dark and wet Autumn landscape, into a bright white winter scene, something which has a huge impact in a part of the world where you in wintertime only see the sun for an hour or so, spending the rest of the day in dawn, twilight or pitch black darkness. And not only does it brighten up the landscape, it also silences it, further adding to the sense of tranquility and calm.”(4)
Diane di Prima (1934–2020), who published over 40 books of poetry and was considered one of the Beat poets, published “First Snow, Kerhonkson” in 1990. In this poem, she welcomes this first snow and conveys this feeling of tranquility that Norling mentions.
“First Snow, Kerhonkson” by Diane di Prima (Excerpt)
This, then, is the gift the world has given me (you have given me) softly the snow cupped in hollows lying on the surface of the pond matching my long white candles which stand at the window which will burn at dusk while the snow fills up our valley
The imagery of the snow filling up the valley and being “cupped in the hollows” is magical. Eshter Louise Ruble also conveys this magical feeling of the first snow in her poem found in a 1922 issue of Poetry Magazine.
“First Snow” by Esther Louise Ruble
The night was hiding a secret When it stole Through the red gates of sunset, Coming so silently. We heard it whispering To the bare trees And while we wondered, The white souls of the autumn leaves Came softly back, Drifting, drifting.
What I really like about Ruble’s poem is the second stanza and the line about the “white souls of the autumn leaves” What wonderful imagery that honors this seasonal shift.
Ethel Romig Fuller also has a poem titled “First Snow”. In her poem she, much like Ruble, captures that unique transition that happens with this first snow.
“First Snow” by Ethel Romig Fuller
The snow wipes out the writing of the year; Its swift erasers softly surely pass Across the hieroglyphics of the grass And clean the slate of summer spear by spear. Where was a tale of gardens there is now A smudged and undecipherable scrawl, And where illumined lettering of fall A dim-inked outline of an austere bough. The hills depicted on the sky are blurred As blackboards hid behind a cloud of chalk, As fast as feet of pigeons write a word It is obliterated from the walk, An ancient picture-script alone remains-- A panorama etched on window-panes.
My favorite lines from Fuller’s poem have to be : “As fast as feet of pigeons write a word/It is obliterated from the walk’”. I can visualize this dance between the pigeons and the snow. The pigeons walking around and their tracks vanishing as the snowflakes descend.
Kobayashi Issa wrote this haiku that parallels Fuller’s lines about the pigeon.
the year's first snow all trampled... by the crows --Kobayashi Issa
Issa also wrote this haiku about new snow.
in first snow last night's pine torch remnant --Kobayashi Issa
Matsuo Basho also has a haiku about first snow.
’Tis the first snow— Just enough to bend The gladiolus leaves! --Matsuo Basho
And as I was out walking the other morning during the first snowfall of the year, I wrote this haiku:
smoke from the chimney, silence overtakes the farm. the first snow
As the winter progresses, it is my intention to return to this theme of snow focused poetry. However, it might just take all winter to cover it.
- National Snow and Ice Data Center: All About Ice
- Phil James; The Eskimos’ Hundred Words for Snow
- Richard Brooks; Which Language Has the Most Words for Snow?: The Language Blog
- Roger Norling; Nordic Words for Snow: NorthernBush.com
- Diane di Prima: “First Snow, Kerhonkson”: Poetry Foundation
- Esther Louise Ruble; “First Snow”: Poetry Foundation
- Ethel Romig Fuller;“First Snow”; Poetry Foundation
- Kobayashi Issa’s haiku was retrieved from David G. Lanoue’s Haiku of Kobayashi Issa at the Haikuguy.com
- Diane di Prima’s poem “First Snow, Kerhonkson” can be found at the Poetry Foundation or in her book Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems.
- Robert Frost poem “Dust of Snow” can be found at the Poetry Foundation or in his book New Hampshire.
- Arthur Sze poem “First Snow” can be found at the Poetry Foundation or in his book Sight Lines.
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