Lauren and Russ discuss heavier stuff.
CW—grief, death of a parent, & cancer.
Episode 2: Snowman – Shel We Read a Poem?
British Voice: Shel we read a poem.
Russ: Hi, everybody. Welcome to Shel We Read a Poem. I’m Russ.
Lauren: And I’m Lauren.
Russ: And shall we read a poem
Lauren: Yes, I well shall. Or “shel.”
Russ: Laughs. Yes, puns are the highest form of comedy as any sensible person will tell you and the point here is to slowly, very slowly, work our way through the works of Shel Silverstein, famously bald and bearded American poet.
Lauren: Or at least get through Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Russ: Yes, because that is a voluminous tome as in itself. So for this week, we have chosen “Snowman.” “Snowman” by Shel Silverstein:
‘Twas the first day of springtime,
And the snowman stood alone
As the winter snows were melting,
And the pine trees seemed to groan,
“Ah, you poor sad smiling snowman,
You’ll be melting by and by.”
Said the snowman, “What a pity,
For I’d like to see July.
Yes, I’d like to see July, and please don’t ask me why.
But I’d like to, yes I’d like to, oh I’d like to see July.”
Chirped a robin, just arriving,
“Seasons come and seasons go,
And the greatest ice must crumble
When it’s flowers’ time to grow.
And as one thing is beginning
So another thing must die,
And there’s never been a snowman
Who has ever seen July,
No, they never see July, no matter how they try.
No, they never ever, never ever, never see July.”
But the snowman sniffed his carrot nose
And said, “At least I’ll try,”
And he bravely smiled his frosty smile
And blinked his coal-black eye.
And there he stood and faced the sun
A blazin’ from the sky—And I really cannot tell you
If he ever saw July.
Did he ever see July? You can guess as well as I
If he ever, if he never, if he ever saw July.
Lauren: Alright and I’ll give it a try.
Russ: Was that intentional just there?
Lauren: Uh, yes.
Russ: I’ll give it a try to see if he ever, if he never, if he ever saw July.
Lauren: So this is “Snowman”
Lauren reads “Snowman.”
Russ: So there’s a lot of unpack here with “Snowman.”
Russ: Well, it’s about death.
Russ: It’s about futility.
Russ: Rage, rage against the dying of the light, and all that.
Lauren: Yeah. Sighs. Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that poem. There are a few poems I’ve been thinking about when I’m looking at Snowman. One is “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
Russ: Oh, Dylan Thomas.
Lauren: Which is a poem by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Russ: Yes. That’s a good one. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Oh, we’re recording this on Robbie Burns Day, aren’t we?
Lauren: Oh, Robbie Burns. I once found a very old book of Robbie Burns poetry at an estate sale. It was like one of two and it was actually older than one of the books I had seen in a museum in Scotland. I gave it to a friend of mine who would take better care of it than I did. Anyway, eventually it’s going to come out that I am grieving my father, who died on January 11th, and that’s why I picked Snowman to read today. Originally I wanted this podcast to be something lighthearted because Shel Silverstein is known for his silliness and brevity. But now that I’m not a kid and I’m looking back at these poems, there is a lot more of a heaviness to them and cynicism than I remember. Kinda like looking at a Norman Rockwell painting where it looks completely saccharine but then if you think about it, it’s a lot more subversive and dark than it initially seems.
Russ: And I 100% agree. Like you, when I was a wee, I enjoyed them for their easy rhyming schemes. I found the illustrations a bit disturbing.
Lauren: Oh yeah. They’re very much like the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Russ: A little bit. They do kind of have that vibe. But now, looking back on these poems as an adult, they’re just good poems. They deal with proper human condition, and they do so in kind of a charming way, but there’s so many of them that hit exactly where they need to. And so, grieving your loss, how is “Snowman” speaking to you?
Lauren: Well, let’s go back to Dylan Thomas for a moment. Sometime this year, and one of the last times that I was able to see my dad… I live in Portland, Oregon, and my family lives in Maryland and with the pandemic, I was only able to see him last Christmas and then I saw him briefly this summer when I went to Maryland quickly to help my sister through a health issue. I didn’t go near him. I only saw him outside on the porch. I didn’t touch him, so the last time I ever touched my dad was last Christmas. Anyhow, I don’t remember when he said this but he was talking about Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and he said that he didn’t really understand he expression of “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” To him it was more about “the dawning of the day” and I’m not quite sure what he meant. I think it’s maybe about being for something rather than more against something, that it was more about living for things you were excited by than battling against something that was frightening.
Russ: And so, it’s not so much, resist death at all costs, but have something to live for that you enjoy.
Lauren: I think so. I’m not sure my dad… I don’t know. My dad did not want to die when he died and he was very much afraid of dying. But, I don’t know. It stuck with me that he said that. And any case, it’s similar here in “Snowman,” where the snowman really wants to see July. Who knows why the particular month of July, rather than, say, August or June, but it rhymes well.
Russ: It does rhyme well, and I think what’s appreciable about it is that there’s not a reason given. That’s just a thing he would… It would be like asking someone, “Why do you want to go to London? Why do you want to see Beijing? Why do you want to travel to Japan? Oh, because it’s a place.” I once took a trip to Latvia and the question I was most asked by the locals was, “Why did you come here?” Russ laughs. Because I’d never been. And they’re like, “That’s not a good reason and tell your friends not to come,” which was completely appreciable, I thought. And with “Snowman,” “I’d like to see July?” Why? Because that’s a month.
Lauren: And then I guess July and all the other months are like, “Fuck off, don’t tell your friends to come.”
Russ: The last stanza of “Do not go gentle”… I imagine that must speak to you a little bit.
Lauren: The last stanza is, “And you, my father, there on that sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Uh, yeah. I does. I really wish my dad had gone gentle into that good night. And he did not. I saw a little bit when my sister had me do a facetime as he was dying. He did not look peaceful. My mother says he was probably not in pain because he was in septic shock, but he certainly looked like he was in pain—and she said when he heard my voice, he started to cry. Lauren’s voice wavers. I told him that he was a good father and I was very proud to be his daughter. And I wanted to be very calm when I was talking to him to sort of usher him into death in a peaceful way, but I was flustered and I cried. There are a lot of things that, like the snowman, my dad wanted to see. Obviously he had a lot of Julys, but… Lauren sighs. He did a lot of good stuff in his life and he got to see a lot of things. Not too long ago my family took a trip to the Galapagos, which is definitely one of those things you’ll only be able to see once in your life and that most people will never have the privilege of seeing. He also got to go on safari in Kenya and Tanzania, and those are both things only a few people get to do. And for my dad, who was so fascinated with nature, and creatures, it was wonderful that he was able to do that in his life. But one of the things that my family was trying to do was get up more to the Arctic. We’d seen warm climates and we’d seen the Galapagos—which is near the equator, but not actually very warm because of the currents— but seeing the majesty of the Arctic is something he never go to do. Unlike the snowman, he wanted to see the snow more than the heat, which he got a lot of.
Russ: He was a geologist by trade, wasn’t he?
Lauren: No. He was a hobby geologist. He was a biochemist by trade.
Russ: Ahh. Biochemist by trade.
Lauren: My dad was a really rather brilliant man who was able to absorb a lot of information. There were very few questions I could as him that he wouldn’t have some answer to.
Russ: And, I imagine, if he didn’t know, it was, “Let’s look it up.”
Lauren: Uh… I mean… I think a lot of times if he didn’t know, it was, “make a reasonable conjecture.” I think I’ve picked up that bad habit.
Russ: I love that you use the term “reasonable conjecture.”
Lauren: He had a lot of knowledge so he could make reasonable conclusions about things, they just weren’t necessarily true. Russ laughs. And I am so guilty of that.
Russ: I think anyone with a modicum of book learning is guilty of that. Other than the Arctic, what do you suppose were some of his Julys.
Lauren: He really liked swamps.
Russ: Laughs. I think that is the first time those words have been put together in a sentence. I don’t think people who live in swamps like swamps.
Lauren: He loved swamps. I imagine there were so many swamps he wanted to see. And the nice thing about swamps is there are so many of them. Whenever he was driving he could just, “Oh, there’s a swamp!”
Russ: Illuminate our listeners. What is the difference between a swamp and a bog.
Lauren: Oh gosh. Ok. I’m not sure I totally know the answer to this. I do know that bogs tend to have a lot of peat in them. They tend to be in colder weather, whereas swamps tend to be in warmer weather and I think they are made of things other than peat.*
Russ: Is it something to do with: swamps have trees and bogs don’t?
Lauren: You know, that’s not unreasonable, but I don’t know for sure. We’ll have to look this up and please edit all this out if I am incorrect.
Russ: I’m definitely not editing that part out.
Lauren: Alright. Let’s get back to the snowman.
Russ: Oh but tangents are the best.
Lauren: Swampy tangents. One thing that’s very different about the “Snowman” poem, is different than a lot of children’s literature and poetry about more macabre things, is that it actually come out and says the word “die.” “Frosty the Snowman” definitely never says the word “die.” It says “he’ll be back again one day” like Jesus to judge the living and the dead.
Russ: Laughs. I’ve never considered Frosty a Christ-like figure until this moment.
Lauren: I mean, I saw parallels. He’s mysteriously begotten and then—it doesn’t say “dies”—but he dies and then he’ll be back again one day.
Russ: Frosty says, “He’s be back again one day.” When was “Frosty the Snowman” written?
Lauren: So “Frosty the Snowman” was first recorded in 1950.
Russ: And then he does not use the word “die,” whereas Shel Silverstein does.
Lauren: Yes. And Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends was published in 1974.
Russ: That almost feels counterculture-y to me. The note I was pulling up was on the transition from parlors to living rooms. As many of our listeners, educated as they will be, will know that parlors were used, among other things, for wakes when death was much more an accepted part of life—as opposed to, in the late 19th century you transition to the living room when it became uncommon to keep the dead for a wake in one’s house and they were immediately transferred to the undertaker or the morgue, or what have you. And Frosty, being written in the ’50s at the height of that notion, doesn’t mention death at all, whereas Shel Silverstein in the ’70s, you kind of have that little undercurrent of almost retaking or newly progressiveness.
Lauren: Dylan Thomas, by the way, died in 1953.
Russ: When was “Do not go gentle” written.
Lauren: I believe it was… 1937 perhaps?
Russ: Looks like 1947.
Lauren: 1947, ok.
Russ: And that’s why he’s remembered as a poet and “Frosty the Snowman” is played once a year
Lauren: It also looks like “Frosty the Snowman” was, in part, trying to continue the success of “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” So it was definitely to make money.
Russ: Well, I mean, Where the Sidewalk Ends was to make money.
Lauren: Sure. There’s not really anything wrong with writing something and getting paid for it.
Russ: We definitely need money.
Lauren: The saccharine “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” are easier money makers than the “Snowman,” which says the word “die.” Saying the word “die” won’t get you as much money as not saying the word “die” and using euphemisms.
Russ: Being motivated by capitalism and easy money does have somewhat less merit one would think than writing a poem that might be controversial and having it appreciated anyway.
Lauren: You grew up in Texas. You didn’t have a lot of experience with snowmen, I imagine.
Russ: No. In my entire life I think I have built one.
Lauren: I’ve built a number of them but I don’t remember any particular snowman that I made. Oh, actually, that’s not true. When I was in… I think I was back for the winter holiday my first year of college. So I was back in Maryland and my friend Steffen and I ran around the little city that was nearby trying to make pornographic snowmen.
Russ: Please elaborate on those two words.
Lauren: Why? You make it look like snowmen are banging.
Russ: So, snowmen in the act of coitus.
Lauren: Yes. But we weren’t great snow sculptors so they really just looked like a bunch of lumps next to each other.
Russ: The reason I ask for elaboration is “pornographic snowmen”—you get into that debate on what’s art and what’s pornography.
Lauren: Oh, snowmen are definitely not art.
Russ: Well, they could be. Isn’t that a thing? A pornographic snowman to someone from Texas or any red belt state, if you have a snowman with a giant cock, that’s probably going to be considered pornographic—that could be argued as art in any other place—mostly for the fact that you made the cock stand up.
Lauren: We tried to make snowmen with cocks. Russ laughs. It’s just hard.
Russ: I see what you did there.
Lauren: So you would, like, put a stick into the groin area and try to mold snow around it, but it just fell apart.
Russ: We call that “sounding” nowadays, ladies and gentlemen.
Lauren: Laughs. Gross. I mean, I’m not trying yuck anybody’s yum.
Russ: Laughs and claps. We don’t kinkshame on this show.
Lauren: I’m not trying to do that. I’m just saying that maybe don’t use a stick as big as you would use for a snowman dick.
Russ: Unless your kink is kinkshaming, in which case, you are disgusting.
Lauren: Where were we?
Russ: We were talking about death and “Frosty the Snowman.”
Lauren: Right now I have been playing—and not as much as I did when I first got my Nintendo Switch— but I’ve been playing Animal Crossing and one of the seasonal things to do is to build “Snowboys.”
Russ: Is that spelled B-O-I?
Lauren: No, but we all do for fun.
Russ: Tell me about snowbois. Do they have to be twinky or can you make thicc snowbois.
Lauren: You don’t have a whole lot of control over what they look like. It’s just, you roll two snowballs of a certain proportion and you got a Snowboy.
Russ: As biology would have it.
Lauren: Yeah. Just two. You go around talking to your Snowboys sometimes. One of the repeated things that they say is “I’d really like to see summer. I know. Be careful what you wish for. I’m just a daredevil like that.”
Russ: I do like the idea that Animal Crossing is getting into very slightly existential nightmares.
Lauren: It will also give you these crafting materials called Large Snowflakes and it will say sometimes, “Here’s a Large Snowflake. It’s a gift before I melt into oblivion. That’s much more fun than it sounds.”
Russ: I get the feeling that this podcast is going to do a whole lot with the human condition. Just because we get to be aware of our mortality.
Lauren: It sucks.
Russ: I wish I could transcend. If I were more zen or something and I could accept the notion of mortality. Earlier this year, I had a little bit of a cancer scare. They thought I might have colon cancer.
Lauren: I had one with thyroid cancer a few years ago. I had a nodule on my thyroid. 75% chance of being cancer. Guess what?
Russ: You rolled the dice on that one and came up one out of four.
Lauren: I feel like that’s the first time in my life the odds have come out in my favor, especially with health stuff.
Russ: Even in my case, the odds were fairly low, and you still return the test and it’s like, “Well, here you go. Let’s see how this works out.” And you get the news, “Hey, you have five years to live. You have one year to live.” What do you do with that?
Lauren: Luckily, even if I did have thyroid cancer, it’s one of the most easily curable.
Russ: True. I’m personally acquainted with three people who have both had it and had it cured.
Lauren: So my dad died, in theory, of complications of multiple myeloma. What he actually died of at the moment was septic shock from a perforated bowel.
Russ: There’s nothing that betrays us like our own bodies.
Russ: You get to wear this strange meat suit that’s definitely going to kill you, but it does let you experience some good stuff along the way.
Lauren: Yeah. So many people are dying. Russ laughs. That’s a fact. So many people are dying.
Russ: I’m going to leave my laugh in there, but, yes. Many people are dying.
Lauren: Way more than normal and that’s a fact because of COVID-19 is killing so many people, and on top of that, so many people who would otherwise be getting medical attention aren’t because of COVID-19. So you’re getting more people dying of non-COVID related things and just a lot of people are dying.
Russ: So I think, for “Snowman,” someone’s answer would reveal more about them than it would about the poem. So, did the snowman ever see July?
Lauren: Oh, absolutely not.
Russ: Yeah. ok. So we’re both realists about that.
Russ: I wonder, how many people would you talk to—percentage-wise in your circle—would say the snowman saw July.
Lauren: My friends? Probably none.
Russ. I would say probably a solid 30% of mine would say the snowman saw July.
Lauren: Really? What story would they tell such that the snowman saw July?
Russ: Because he would be the exception. Because he would be the ideal. Why would you write a story about a snowman if he wasn’t going to see July? Whereas you and I would read that and say, “because he’s human.” Well, he’s not human, he’s a snowman. But the odds aren’t in his favor and I think we’re both a little gloomier in our predictions.
Lauren: Well, I mean, maybe he’s like a snowman in the Arctic Circle or something.
Russ: We both know he’s not.
Lauren: No. He’s not. Although I’m wondering where he is made, because it’s springtime and he still exists.
Russ: The one snowman that I remember constructing when I was a wee was at my very childhood home—I think where I lived until I started middle school, maybe. There was a snowfall at one point and we made a proper snowman. And there he remained. And long after the bulk of the snow had melted, there was this strange snow lump. Once it all melted away, the grass underneath was dead underneath it and all like that.
Lauren: Right. What did you think about that? Did you think there was some special reason?
Russ: No. And looking back on it now, that’s quite terrifying. Lauren laughs. Because here’s the snowman that does not get to go quickly into that dark night; he gets to persist and see all his bits melt away and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Lauren: Huh. Russ laughs. I don’t think that ever bothered me because I understood principles of snow melting.
Russ: Certainly not at the time. I didn’t think about it in an existential body horror kind of way but now we’re talking about “Do not go gentle” and “Snowman” and death and what it means to exist and the impermanence of life and all like that. And, so here, what you’re going to do is slowly melt away into nothing. I think that’s why no one wants to end up in a convalescent home.
Lauren: My aunt got to peacefully. She had breast cancer and, so yes, her illness was long and often painful, but her last days were easy. She just was asleep more and more. This was my dad’s sister. She died in 2017. You know, somebody I love has died every single year since 2017.
Russ: Let’s hope we can break the streak.
Lauren: I mean, probably not with COVID. I’m sure somebody else I know will die. Maybe I will die.
Russ: This does not translate well to podcasts but that was the most profound frown.
Lauren: Laughs. “Profound frown.” I like that expression. The “profrown.”
Russ: The profrown.
Lauren: Sounds like professional frown. I don’t know.
Russ: But I think “I don’t know” is the point. To not know is to accept just how flawed we are.
Lauren: To me, whether or not the snowman saw July—I do know. He did not.
Russ: No no. Not that. We’re not talking about the poem “Snowman” at this point. Of course he didn’t see July. Everybody knows that.
Lauren: Do they? Here’s the question I have: When I was a kid, what would my answer have been?
Russ: I think I would have said yes.
Lauren: I think I would have said no.
Russ: And that’s because girls are smarter than boys.
Lauren: No. Russ laughs. That’s because of two things: One, I had a very scientific dad who helped me learn about how the world works and how water freezes and melts. The other is that my biological mother died when I was really young. And so, to me death was a pretty familiar thing pretty early one.
Russ: And I don’t think I experienced it firsthand until I was maybe 12, 13, 14, somewhere in there, when one of my grandmother’s died. I don’t consider that being a kid. If you asked me when I was seven if the snowman saw July, “Oh yeah definitely.”
Russ: It’s a good poem.
Lauren: It is a good poem.
Russ: Final thoughts for our soon to be faithful out there?
Lauren: I don’t think this podcast will always be this depressing. Russ laughs. But, I mean, Russ and I are both not particularly optimistic people so no promises. Well, thanks, Russ.
Russ: Thank you, Lauren. It’s been a pleasure on this episode of Shel We Read a Poem. Everybody, stay safe.
Lauren: Please do.
Lauren: Don’t die. No more. No more dying.
Russ: See July.
Lauren: See July. We can make it.
*Lauren’s answer about the difference between a bog and a swamp isn’t exactly true. Russ’s idea of a swamp having trees is closer to the real answer. For more information: https://lakes.grace.edu/bog-marsh-swamp-wetland/