The Simple and the Sublime in “Ice Storm” by Robert Hayden

Read “Ice Storm” here.

Robert Hayden’s posthumous collection American Journal is filled with secret pains and guilts, remembrances, and tributes as Hayden reflects on his life and builds a collection which ultimately interrogates life itself, death, spirit, God, and the dubious possibility of continuance after death.

I think the framing of this book is supported by some of the larger, more epic or elegiac poems such as “Elegies for Paradise Valley,” “Boneflower Elegy,” and “[American Journal].” Poems between these pillars are like the foliage, the life-giving green, and I found “Ice Storm” to be one such, powerful in its carefully crafted simplicity.

“Ice Storm” is deceivingly simple—there’s not much there on the page, and what is there is mainly in plain, Germanic language. But the shortness of the words, paired with the lyric structure and reined-in form, creates poem not soon forgotten.

An average conversation in English will yield at least 1.5 syllables per word. “Ice Storm” has just 62 words, comprised of 83 syllables, or 1.33 syllables per word. The diction here is not flowery, Latinate, nor academic—not at all what one might think of as “poetic language.” In fact, it is even less florid than the average conversational diction would be. What this means is that Hayden didn’t pick simple words because they were what first came to mind; he deliberately simplified his language as much as he possibly could. This sparseness mirrors the sparse imagery in the poem: the moon and winter trees, the ice and snow. The landscape is bare. So is the language. This parallel wouldn’t necessarily be noted just in a first reading of the poem, but it is felt as an emptiness, perhaps tinged with despair, and creates a vivid tone.

In the final stanza, the first two lines have a higher syllable-per-word count, which serves to build some energy before the epiphanic and lyric last two lines, which contain almost entirely one-syllable words and releases the energy in a final prayer. This prayer takes on greater significance considering the first lines, “Unable to sleep, or pray, I stand / by the window looking out.” Only after seeing the ice storm can the speaker find prayer:

The trees themselves, as in winters past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. And am I less to You,
my God, than they?

Only here in the last two lines are we removed from imagery into the speaker’s mind. As in many great image-rich poems, this final, ungrounded, and rather metaphysical pondering is only able to engage the reader because of the great image-building done throughout the rest of the poem. I think here of the ubiquitous “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright, which employs the same technique. Only a poet with meticulous craft can pull off this type of lyric poem without sounding moralistic or proselytizing.

An additional strategy Hayden uses in this poem is adherence to form. Although the poem is free verse, each stanza follows a pattern of syllables: lines one and three are long (seven to nine syllables), line two is slightly shorter (six to seven syllables), and line four is about half the length of lines one through three (two syllables). The shorter final lines create a jagged, ungrounded sense to the poem, and unfinished-ness which references the speaker’s unease. Death is an unknown, God is silent but for the ice on trees. The speaker hopes for salvation, hopes to “thrive” as do the trees, but the hope goes unanswered.

Yet, at the same time, I hear in the poem a parallel to the biblical parable of the lilies of the field in which Jesus asks his listeners to consider how God cares for the flowers: “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30). Perhaps these two questions echo through each other into eternity, the perpetual interplay between faith and mortality.

Hayden, Robert. “Ice Storm.” Collected Poems, Liverlight Publishing Corporation, 1996, p.175.