“. . . as if We had come to an end of the imagination. . . “

Trying to make sense of the morning. Early. No one else is awake at 5:30 AM. Not another window is lighted. It’s never clear when the day begins for my neighbors. Then abruptly lights

. . . if I went up and knocked on their door, they would be frightened. . .

. . . if I went up and knocked on their door, they would be frightened. . .

come on to the right, a floor above. I suppose if I went up and knocked on their door, they would be frightened and/or offended. Who knocks at the door at 5:30 AM? Just to see who lives there. I don’t know anyone who lives on that floor. I’m reminded of The Bald Soprano.

[The doorbell rings again.]
MR. SMITH: Goodness, someone is ringing. There must be someone there.
MRS. SMITH [in a fit of anger]: Don’t send me to open the door again. You’ve seen that it was useless. Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.
MRS. MARTIN: Never.
MR. MARTIN: That’s not entirely accurate.
MR. SMITH: In fact it’s false. When one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is someone there.
MRS. SMITH: He won’t admit he’s wrong.
(Ionesco, Eugene. The Bald Soprano. E-Portfolios. City University of New York. macaulay.cuny.edu/. n.d. Web.)

“Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.” One of my favorite lines from all the theater I know (which isn’t much, and from the plays I’m familiar with, I can’t quote many lines).

One of the first poets I became familiar with was Wallace Stevens (1879-1955—he died when he was only five years older than I am now). He was, when I was in high school, one of the grand men of American Poetry—Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Robert Frost Medal—all of the honor reserved for very important poets. None of that mattered to me. I loved “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” Memorized it once.

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too
. . . and so on.

For a long time I had a stanza from his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a signature on my email.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.  

At 5:45 AM is the blackbird whistling or just after? The other day I discovered a Stevens poem I don’t remember having read before, and it has been haunting me. I am told I should understand that

. . . Stevens evokes the outer in “Plain Sense” by imagining not simply the absence of any construct, but the absence of the faculty that creates the constructs. Paradoxically, though,

Inflection or innuendo?

Inflection or innuendo?

the imagining of the absence of the imagination is itself a powerful expression of the creative activity of the imagination . . . (Whiting, Anthony. The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens’ Romantic Irony. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.)

When I comment about such dense scholasticism, I do not mean I think it has no value—au contraire! I understand the necessity of that kind of analysis. It keeps the interest in and understanding of literature alive in the hearts and minds of the people who shape our understanding and even awareness of literary works. If Mr. Simpson at Omaha Central High School in 1962 had not studied Stevens twenty years before, I would not have read his work, and you would not now be reading it (perhaps for the first time).

“The Plain Sense of Things,” by Wallace Stevens.

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.

And there it is. The poem that imagines “. . . not simply the absence of any construct, but the absence of the faculty that creates the constructs. Paradoxically, though, the imagining of the absence of the imagination is itself a powerful expression of the creative activity of the imagination. . . “

It’s difficult for me to ponder Stevens’ words. “Yet the absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined.” Is that the same as, “Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there?”

It’s hard to imagine the absence of imagination, yet experience teaches us that when the doorbell rings there is never anyone there. If we simply rely on our experience, we will know inherently that there is—or will be—an absence of imagination.

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.

When the leaves have fallen (at the end of the time of growth, of fruitfulness) we see things plainly. Our imagination is at an end, and we have only an inert, unmoving “knowledge.”

. . . all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

I’m ready to imagine the inevitable knowledge. If I’d written that ten years ago, I would not have let anyone read it because it seems too formal, too stylized, too phony as if I’m trying to be old and wise and poetic or something.

The fact is, you get to be 69 and you understand there will be an end of the imagination. You must—I must, at any rate—try to imagine it in order to make it last as long as it will. And to keep in mind that I simply don’t know. In a way it’s all guesswork and absurdity. “Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.”

When one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.

When one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.

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