The poem uses a variety of images to describe a period that occurs annually during which one’s imagination is in a slump. While it might seem desolate and as though nothing is ever going to change, it is, in fact, a necessary part of the creative process. One must go through these periods, ‘The Plain Sense of Things’ says, in order to move on.
Explore The Plain Sense of Things
‘The Plain Sense of Things’ by Wallace Stevens is a thoughtful and well-loved poem about creativity and imagination.
The poem starts out with the speaker noting the time when one returns to the “plain sense of things.” It’s after the colorful fall leaves are gone, and one’s left with the barren time between autumn and winter. There, the speaker notes, all imagination seems to die. One is left with a silence that feels impenetrable and entirely uncreative.
But, this period in which everything seems raw and uninteresting is also a time to reset and reconsider one’s work. It is incredibly necessary to continue the creative process.
You can read the full poem here.
After the leaves have fallen, we return
Inanimate in an inert savoir.
In the first stanza of ‘The Plain Sense of Things,’ the speaker begins by describing how “we,” human beings, come back to a “plain sense of things” once autumn has come. This suggests that during the prior summer months, things are different. When this period comes around, the “imagination” feels as though it’s at an end. This is the first clear reference to creativity, and specifically writing, that one can find in this piece. As it progresses, these allusions are going to become more obvious.
Stanzas Two and Three
It is difficult even to choose the adjective
No turban walks across the lessened floors.
The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.
In the second stanza, the speaker notes how during this period, it’s “even difficult to choose the adjective” to describe it. It is a “sadness without cause.” It makes one’s mind shrink up, and the imagination collapses.
The period inspires the speaker to consider their surroundings and use them as symbols for the lost feeling he suffers as creativity declines. It feels as though everything has failed during these creative slumps. He’s left with the broken down and slanted remnants of previous efforts.
Stanzas Four and Five
Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Required, as a necessity requires.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker notes that the “absence of the imagination / had Itself to be imagined.” There is a purpose to this “absence.” It wasn’t just a negative. It expresses, like a dirty pond, “silence.” Its “water like dirty glass” is without reflection or sound. It’s compared in the fifth stanza to the “silence of a rat come out to see.”
The dirty pond is not without merits; it’s filled with “lilies,” all of which had to be imagined, the speaker says, “as an inevitable knowledge.” It is required that one have these periods of imaginative distance so that one may succeed creatively in times to come.
Structure and Form
‘The Plain Sense of Things’ by Wallace Stevens is a five-stanza poem that is divided into quatrains or sets of four lines. These lines are written in free verse. This means that the poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is quite common with contemporary verse, but it doesn’t mean that the poem is entirely without rhyme or rhythm. For example, readers should note the use of half-rhymes with “flies” and “side” in stanza two. This is one of a few instances.
Throughout this poem, the poet uses a variety of literary techniques. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “fantastic” and “failed” in line three of the third stanza.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “To a plain sense of things. It is as if.”
- Imagery: occurs when the poet makes use of especially interesting descriptions that are meant to catch the reader’s attention. They should inspire reader’s senses and make scenes easy to imagine. For example, “The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves, / Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence.”
The tone is analytical and distant. The speaker spends the lines of this poem outlining what it’s like to lose one’s imagination and be left with a “plain sense of things.” This allows one perspective in an incredibly important way.
The purpose is to explore the necessity of down periods in one’s creativity and imagination. These darker, silent periods are necessities for continuing one’s work later.
The speaker is commonly thought of as Stevens himself. This is because the poem appears to be addressing creativity and could be about Stevens’ relationship with his writing practice.
The mood is contemplative. Readers are left to wonder about this period of “silence” and how it has affected the speaker. They may also consider these periods within their own lives and find a new appreciation for them.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Plain Sense of Things’ should also consider reading some other Wallace Stevens poems. For example:
- ‘Of Mere Being’ – describes the world beyond one’s last thought and speaks to the elemental purity of existence.
- ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ – a poem that expresses, through the story of “a jar” and “a hill,” the progressive overtaking of industry over nature.
- ‘A Postcard from a Volcano’ – a mournful depiction of a future world that has been ravaged by a natural disaster.