Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"The Plain Sense Of Things": Wallace Stevens

In 1952, the editor of the periodical The Nation asked Wallace Stevens if he would be willing to submit a poem to the publication.  Stevens agreed to do so.  In response to the request, Stevens wrote seven short poems in the late summer and early autumn of that year.

On September 29, he observed to a correspondent:  "To-day there is a light as of the end of the boulevards -- the extra hour of lateness and the sense of autumn."  In a letter dated October 8 to another correspondent, Stevens wrote:  "This morning I walked around in the park here for almost an hour before coming to the office and felt as blank as one of the ponds which in the weather at this time of year are motionless.  But perhaps it was the blankness that made me enjoy it so much."

On November 12, Stevens submitted the poems to the editor of The Nation.  In the final paragraph of the letter that accompanied the poems, Stevens wrote:  "Now that these poems have been completed they seem to have nothing to do with anything in particular, except poetry, and you will have to determine for yourself whether they are appropriate for use in The Nation."  All of the poems were published on December 6, 1952.  The following poem is one of those submitted by Stevens.

                 The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things.  It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined.  The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954).

                  Stanley Spencer, "Farm Pond, Leonard Stanley" (1940)


WAS said...

I've appreciated your posting these late Stevens poems, Stephen. As they got more airy and human with age, as you suggest, they got clearer. This one I hope is a very lucid statement of what Stevens' poetic project was. Instead of the major men and undulations and statues and vases designed to signify the relationship between reality and the imagination, here he has such earthy analogies as "the greenhouse never so badly needed paint." For me, that brings it home - the failure of imagination to conquer reality, and the failure of reality to conquer imagination. The shabbiness of the way things really are requires, as a practical matter, a fantasy.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you for visiting and commenting again, Mr. Sigler.

I agree with you that "The Plain Sense of Things" is a sort of short summary of what Stevens was up to in much of his poetry. And, as you say, there was more humanity and clarity in the poetry as he got older -- which is why I find it appealing.

Thank you again.