Barbara M. Fisher: On "The Plain Sense of Things"

"[Stevens experiences] a relative ease in sailing toward a mystical negativa, or in bringing a playful exercise in negation to a paradoxical conclusion. The labor is in confronting the banal, unornamented, unswept scene. It is not in the visionary fireworks of "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" that Stevens takes up the challenge of a depressive reality but in a much shorter poem of the same period. "The Plain Sense of Things," cast as a reflective narrative in the manner of Frost, comes as close to an "existential ordinary" as a Stevens poem will get. It attempts to close off the last route of escape from the commonplace, to exclude the troping paradox, the shimmer of possibility – not as perfectly perhaps as it might.

Like Shakespeare’s "bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang," Stevens’s meditation on the plain sense of things evokes a state of mind, a season of life, a time of year "after the leaves have fallen." It mirrors the psychological reality of a vision – not so much despairing as resigned – in which all other moods appear to have been falsely optimistic, all other visions illusory. The coloration tends to sepias and grays rather than black and white; the region is limbo rather than hell. This is Dickinson’s pervasive Hour of Lead, a mode of perception that disallows hope, that feels eternal, that masquerades as truth and darkens both past and future. It is not the great cloud of tragedy but an unresolved diminished seventh. One feels a corrosive importance and passively notes the blank evenness of things, the disappearance of a choice:

[lines 1-7 are quoted here]

The verses are cast as short, flat statements of fact, and end-stopped with unusual frequency. Lexically, the poem trudges through a mire of disaffirmation: "fallen," "end," "inanimate," "inert," "difficult," "blank," "without cause," "lessened," "old," "badly," "failed," "silence," "waste." The tongue has trouble with the repetitive haltings of "in-an-I-mate in an in-ert" while the mind is troubled by the vague image of the unmoving, the lifeless, embedded in the inactive. The numbness extends to memory; it is difficult even to choose an adjective. Mortality is reduced, in stanza three, to a "repetitiousness of men and flies." Stevens the poet has surely succeeded on getting as close to the commonplace and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. …

… But symbolisms crouch in the ordinary scene and cannot be blanked out. The house is the world, the body, the housing of the mind, the skull – and the cosmos, once conceived as the House of God. The greenhouse is a glass coffin, an enclose garden. And who or what has failed in this "fantastic effort"? The neutral tones and the "great pond" of this poem are reminiscent of [Thomas] Hardy’s alienated vision, although in Hardy’s landscape a measure of pathos survives. … Stevens’s "plain sense of things" avoids sentiment and maintains its distance, both from the human "we" and the inhuman "God." But it turns upon the irresistible paradox: "Yet the absence of imagination had / Itself to be imaged." With the reappearance of the word imagination in the final stanza of "Plain Sense," the world is dismantled to the point where the Word and the Name are both "Mud." A debased perception creeps out of this originating element, this pre-Adamic slime – not a spoken imperative but the silent shiftiness of "a rat come out to see.; And what the rat sees, what we see, are the ravages of Solomonic beauty, the aftermath of creation. It can be seen as such – and this is the point – only through the lens of imagination."

From Barbara M. Fisher, Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous (Charlottesville: University Virginia Press, 1990), 50-53.


Title Barbara M. Fisher: On "The Plain Sense of Things" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Barbara M. Fisher Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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