Written in 1934, “The Idea of Order at Key West” remains one of the most difficult poems by one of America’s most difficult poets. Yet, it stands as one of Stevens’ most anthologized poems, and according to most critics of his work, it is one of his best. Stevens must have liked it as well, as he made it the title poem in his 1936 collection, Ideas of Order. As widely praised as the poem is, no authoritative reading has emerged. Indeed, there are as many different interpretations of the poem as there are readers of it.
One of the great ironies of “The Idea of Order at Key West,” is that for a complex poem, its plot is rather simple. An unnamed speaker is walking along the beach of Key West and hears a woman singing a song. The song enchants the listener/speaker, and as the woman is singing, he begins to muse on the beauty of her song and its relationship to his own life, particularly his ideas on reality and imagination. Finally, after listening and thinking, the speaker experiences a kind of epiphany, a moment of insight. While few would question these basic facts of the poem, the debate takes place around what Stevens thinks of the song and what kind of epiphany he experiences.
While the poem remains too complex to be easily explicated or paraphrased here, it is accurate to say that the poem dramatizes important conflicts for Stevens: imagination and reality, presence and absence, order and chaos, nature and civilization, the mind and the body. While readers never see the female singer or actually hear what it is the woman is singing, they experience what the speaker of the poem experiences: transformation. The woman’s song transforms the speaker’s experience of walking along the beach, and, what’s more, when he returns to town, he discovers that his perception of Key West has also been altered. Early critics cite the poem as an example of Stevens championing the creative process, but that is inaccurate, according to most recent criticism. These critics believe that the poem is about the need for poetry and the need for art. Thus, the emphasis of the poem is not so much on the song itself but what the song does to the listener. One can extend that, of course, to Stevens’ hope for his own poetry—that it has the same effect on his readers as the song does on the speaker of the poem.