Poetry Review, Wallace Stevens, The Plain Sense of Things

30 Jan

“After the leaves have fallen, we return/to a plain sense of things.”  So we’re talking about winter, which also means the end of life.   This plain sense is explained through the poem, but here he means simple sensation without thought, sort of like what a baby must feel like.  To most people any thing or experience is loaded with preconceptions and thoughts making this giant web of meaning.  To a baby, at least as far as we can imagine, this does not exist, because that kind of thinking is comparative, and babies have very little to compare stuff to.  Maybe that’s why we have language in the first place, in order to compare stuff we need words to do it.  Anyway, Stevens is comparing the end of life to that of being an infant.

“It is as if/we had come to an end of the imagination, inanimate in an inert savoir.”  By using the “we” Stevens invites us to share his experience with him.  An end of the imagination makes me think of the feeling one gets towards the end of a movie we’ve been sucked into, where the credits are  playing and people are starting to straggle out.  What I find interesting is that while current pop psychology focuses on having people free themselves from their preconceptions and thus interact with reality in a more substantial way, Stevens rejects this, seeing reality without imagination is being “inanimate in an inert savoir.”  In other words frozen in knowledge.  Stevens sees reality like a pack of cards, without imagination they are just a bunch of pieces of paper with symbols and numbers on them, it takes our imagination to turn them into a game.

We start the next stanza with “It is difficult even to choose the adjective/for this blank cold, this sadness without cause.”  World-weariness, despair.  Adjectives imply imagination, which he has run out of.  I can’t tell if Stevens feels as if he’s run out of a lifetime of imagination, or the effort to bring imagination about, perhaps both.  What’s interesting is that he seems to have no imagination because he knows too much, has experienced too much.

He brings us to a metaphor of a house.  “The great structure has become a minor house./No turban walks across the lessened floors.”  So for the speaker, imagination has to do with having plans, this place he had such great ideas for, that was supposed to be a palace, is just a small house…

“The greenhouse never so badly needed paint./The chimney is 50 years old and slants to one side.”   …a small house that is falling apart and won’t be around too much longer without more effort.  It would be very hard to reinvest in a hovel that was supposed to be a palace.   He’s not talking about his house here, he’s talking about his “house.”  It used to be that the sum of a person’s success would be in the house they built, that’s why people still boast that they own a house that their grandfather made out of his own two hands, that sort of thing, it’s human effort making something.  However, this poet’s house is shabby and doesn’t live up to the expectation of it.

“A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition/in a repetitiousness of men and flies.”    A fly is very much the lowest form of life, or at least, the one which is hardest for a human to find much in common with.  Flies have very short lives, seem like little robots, and breed like crazy.  They only have a few actions they perform over and over again.  I can see why flies would be seen as a repetitious creature.  Also if an old fly leaves a room, but a new one enters, it’s not like there’s much to distinguish one from another.  Add onto that with the associations one has with flies and refuse, and rot, this shows the dark place where Stevens is.

“Yet the absence of the imagination had/itself to be imagined.”  Here Stevens is reasoning himself away from despair.  It’s a sort of weird turnaround on the “I think therefore I am” Descartes idea–feeling the loss of imagination means that imagination is there.    We move from a house to “A great pond/the plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves, mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence”  This is a less destructive image–a pond is not something which has total control over itself (while a house is a completely controlled environment.)  There’s no implicit fault at a pond being muddy.  This reminds me too, of how ponds in movies are always blue and beautiful, and in real life they are more often giant mud puddles.    His point with “the plain sense of it” is that this is looking at a pond, in shiny reflective surfaces we see nothing but the reflections.  Here’s an acknowledgement that his previous imagination, as pleasurable as it was, was not looking at things as they were, this silence would be filled by his own noise.

“Expressing silence/of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see, the great pond and its waste of the lilies”  Instead of flies, a rat, not the pleasantest of creatures, but at least a mammal, and one which instead of going through meaningless actions is contemplating the pond.  The waste of lilies is like the house but different, in a pond, the lilies live for a season, and die, but it’s part of the natural progression.  Again, he’s talking about the fruits of his life, but lilies are more like beautiful things that eventually fade and die, but again it’s better than a damaged house.

“All this/had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge/required, as a necessity requires.”  Again, Stevens finds proof of his imagination.  It’s funny how this line cuts both ways.  Stevens is desperately grasping for imagination as the thing which gives life meaning, so the image of the pond had to be imagined as inevitable knowledge–keep in mind he’s not saying that there’s any intrinsic knowledge in looking at the pond, he’s having to imagine it’s there–he might not be looking at things as they are (actually I think he’s desperately hoping he’s not, because there’s a profound lack of meaning in this place).  The trick he’s making is through all these little paradoxes is he eventually comes to the point that either he is seeing things as they are, meaningless, empty, plain, and this was the message he was meant to see, or he’s imagining this, and therefore his imagination is still there, and there’s hope.  He’s cleverly changing the experience of despair into a weird win-win game in his head.

Why is it that I don’t feel like he feels any better for it?  It’s like he won on paper, but it doesn’t mean anything either.  What he won is a will to live, at least for now, but what I find really disturbing is the idea that there will be a time where he won’t win anymore, that his imagination will truly be gone and he can’t think himself out of this feeling.  Then what?    That’s why I find this poem to be incredibly brave.  It’s one thing to choose life when you’re young and you have all this time ahead of you where things can change, but towards the end of life I would think it would be harder, the chances for change, for something new, get slimmer and require more effort.  In a way that’s the plain sense of things too–being older is not a time where you have made it and you can rest on your laurels, being older is more of a time where you are running out of things to do.  That’s the tragedy that can exist in every life.

****Note, apparently I wanted Wallace Stevens to be a poncy English schoolboy and spelled his last name StePHans rather than Stevens.  I would like to imagine it was Steven’s poetry that sent me into such wild free-style spelling spree,

2 Responses to “Poetry Review, Wallace Stevens, The Plain Sense of Things”

  1. Molly at 5:31 pm #


    It’s Wallace Stevens.

    • pewterbreath at 10:33 pm #

      Ach! You’re right (of course). I don’t know what made me do Stephens. Thanks!

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