Silence of a rat come out to see

research, modernism

Back to Stevens:

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.1

Wallace Stevens is a suitable poet for these bad times, when every street is empty enough to make you return to a plain sense of things. I go to a poem like “The Plain Sense of Things” to see how poetry continues amidst the wreckage. A barren world, seemingly depopulated (“no turban walks the lessened floors”), is not in fact empty, since “the absence of imagination had / Itself to be imagined.” And as I have said elsewhere, despite the loneliness of the figure of the rat, the poem implicitly reminds us that even separate, we—the “we” of “we return / To a plain sense of things”—are linked by a language we share.

JHUP is opening up access to its Project Muse journals to help everyone shut out of their libraries by the pandemic. I have a short review out in a Muse journal, the Wallace Stevens Journal, which is accessible here. My review is of an accomplished monograph by Gül Bilge Han, Wallace Stevens and the Poetics of Modernist Autonomy (Cambridge UP, 2019). It’s not exactly hard to guess why I was enthusiastic about the book, though in fact Han takes quite a different approach to Stevens and his explorations of autonomy than I do. Her book has a special and revealing focus on Stevens’s work of the 1930s and early 1940s, including the redoubtable long poem “Owl’s Clover,” that helps to show how Stevens’s version of autonomy negotiates with the political programs so important to the U.S. literary field of that time.

Understandings of autonomy in literary studies are shifting…slowly. It has become possible to talk about autonomy within precise historical frameworks, without making hopeless gestures of aestheticist true belief. I still see plenty of work that remains limited by doxa, especially in disguised and disavowed versions, but there is also genuine new literary-historical knowledge being produced.

And it’s been a while since I was in Stevens mode. It was fortifying to come back to this favorite poet of mine. He certainly doesn’t tell you it’s all going to be okay, but he does set the whole mind going.


  1. Wallace Stevens, “The Plain Sense of Things,” in Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1997), 428. Full text available at The Poetry Foundation.