On "A Clear Day and No Memories"
William W. Bevis
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: U Pittsburgh P, 1988), 101-102.
. . . at the very end, Stevens was able to write a few poems that accepted silence instead of spinning a web to disguise it. In the quiet and luminous "A Clear Day and No Memories" Stevens turns away from everything once dear to him--the soldiers of two world wars, the dead he spent years mapping in genealogical charts, and the living whom he felt he loved too little.
These lines empty out the accumulation of a lifetime, even the existence of the poet's self. Yet "A Clear Day and No Memories" appeared a few months after Stevens said plainly in his essay on Connecticut: "it is a question of coming home to the American self in the sort of place in which it was formed." Two years before, Stevens had returned to Cambridge--one of the places in which he was formed--to see an exhibition at the Fogg Museum. On that day he did have memories, and he recalled the museum as a place whose only real public consisted of "young persons of honorable intentions." When Stevens was a student at Harvard in the year 1900, he visited the Fogg Museum to hear a speech by John Jay Chapman. Fired by Chapman's words, he wrote his editorial calling for all young persons to become "readily acquainted with political conditions." Looking back fifty years later, Stevens knew the haphazard fate of honorable intentions. In a poem that relinquishes the memories of soldiers in the scenery and the thoughts of people now dead, Stevens commemorates a life spent honoring the plain sense of things.
From Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Oxford University Press.
J. S. Leonard and C. E. Wharton
"Nothingness" and the "sense" of "being" (as a vitalness) again commingle in the late poem (1955) "A Clear Day and No Memories":
Today the air is clear of everything.
It has no knowledge except of nothingness
And it flows over us without meanings,
As if none of us had ever been here before
And are not now: in this shallow spectacle,
This invisible activity, this sense.
Once more there is a winter integration--a "sense" in which the past (with its fictions) has vanished with the "sun" that once illuminated it. The clear air of the present moment has "no knowledge except of nothingness / And it flows over us without meanings." The indifference of the air, to the present as well as the past, is an indifference to the human, reminiscent of the indifferent night ("the color of the heavy hemlocks") in the early poem "Domination of Black" (1916). But as in "Domination," the indifferent (what seems objective) is so only in our apprehension of it. By the doubled meaning of the lines, the clear air, in the "invisible activity" of air, "flows over" this "invisible activity" which is ourselves. As he often does, Stevens exposes the full shape of the poem by the turn of the last line. Our "invisible activity" (which again is like the light that "adds nothing . . . ") is not simply a sense; it is "this sense": of what was, of what is, and of the indifferent "sense" the air.
From The Fluent Mundo: Wallace Stevens and the Structure of Reality. University of Georgia Press.
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