William W. Bevis

William W. Bevis: On "A Clear Day and No Memories"

Stevens' last poems are distinguished by a broad serenity; this one was published in 1954, the year before he died. The poem is built of negations: "no memories," "no thoughts," "no knowledge except of nothingness," "without meanings," "none of us … here before / And are not now." In this void only two positive constructions occur: "air is clear," and at the end, "in … this sense." "This sense" is parallel to the prior oxymorons, "shallow spectacle," "invisible activity," each of which suggests a dual nature to reality, part void (shallow, invisible) and part richness (spectacle, activity). These oxymorons suggest an external reality but "sense" connotes an internal reality and hence both dissolves the external scene and unites, as the final description of the scene, not only voidness and suchness, but internal and external. It is all one "sense," both this perceived world, which is the absolute "today" stripped of all "knowledge except of nothingness," and these perceivers (poet and us) who have a vivid sense of perception, as vivid as if we had never seen this before (perhaps we have not in this state of consciousness), and who have this vivid sense because of self-loss: we "are not [here] now." No memory, no knowledge, no meaning, no existence – and a vivid sense of present reality, "clear" in a single unified sense." …

Within the poem, this clarity is achieved by the dramatic device of conjuring up the "people now dead," the people of whom he has "no thoughts." Those four beautiful lines place vividly before us … all the possibilities of beauty, desire, action, death: "Young and living … Young and walking … Bending in black dresses to touch," Some critics read the entire poem negatively because that delicate beauty is now gone, because "the mind is not part of the weather."

But in stanza 2 the weather itself is gone. To read the poem negatively we must find the last word, "sense," disappointing: "the air is clear" we must find sterile; the tone must be upsetting, unquiet. I find the poem more convincing as a serene clarity achieved by calling up those memories, lovely in themselves, and then dismissing them, "just as when the birds fly away the real sky is revealed."

From William W. Bevis, Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation and Literature (Pittsburgh: University Pittsburgh Press, 1988), 101-102.