“The Idea of Order at Key West” is a discursive poem reflecting upon the work of the imagination and the relationship between the real and the imagined worlds. The poem’s form is iambic pentameter with some irregular end rhymes. It begins with an unidentified woman singing beside the sea: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea.” “She” is the imagination, and her voice does not change the reality it represents: “The water never formed to mind or voice.” These two, then, woman and water, mind and world, are separate. Yet it would seem that reality, too, has some sort of guiding principle or spirit, a “genius.” Her song does not change or “form” reality, which has its own inhuman “cry.”
The second section of the poem reiterates and redefines the separation between the two: The water’s sound is reflected in her song, but “it was she and not the sea we heard.” She is singing in words; reality speaks its own language, that of “the grinding water and the gasping wind.”
She is the “maker,” and the sea is merely “a place by which she walked to sing.” The listeners ask, “Whose spirit is this?” They wish to know what, or who, this secret voice, the imagination that is at the center of human nature, is. The answer is that the voice is not merely reality, “the dark voice of the sea,” for if it were, the human listeners would not understand it; “it would have been deep air.” Nor is the sound only humans’ readings of reality, “her voice, and ours, among/ The...
The speaker of “The Idea of Order at Key West,” one of Wallace Stevens’s most anthologized poems, says that his thoughts have been inspired by a woman who is singing a song she has composed. She sings as she walks by the sea. In the penultimate stanza, the speaker addresses a rhetorical question to the person with whom he (or she) has shared the experience of the woman and then concludes with an exclamation of approval for the human passion to create meaning.
The speaker says that the woman’s singing surpasses the genius of the sea, a claim that he clarifies. The sea has no brain; it is like a scarecrow—pure matter, no mind. Genius means one thing when attributed to a person (intellectual power) and another when attributed to the sea (a prevailing atmosphere, as in genius loci). The woman’s singing surpasses the genius of the sea because the woman’s singing conveys meaning.
Just as the word “genius” can have two meanings, so too can the word “voice.” The speaker says that the water had not formed with a voice. The distinction is between voice understood as the utterance of words and voice understood as a metaphor for sounds that merely suggest meaning, as when the speaker refers to the inhuman cry of the sea that results from one wave crashing after another (the sea’s “mimic motion”). A rich ambiguity is created syntactically by the position of the phrase “although we understood”: understood that the sea’s cry was merely the sound made by crashing waves and imaginatively understood the sound as a cry.
The speaker says that the woman’s song puts into words the sounds of sea and air—sounds interpreted as grinding and gasping. The speaker begins to explain why he and his companion can hear the woman but not the sea: Her song is a work of human making, and it is that urge to interpret the sea, that spirit of creativity, in which they are interested. Something of the portrait of the sea the singer creates in her song is suggested by the phrase “tragic-gestured”—the rising of the waves is doomed to fail in their crashing down.
The fourth and fifth stanzas offer a variation on these themes. The sounds of the sea and sky, however colorful and varied, are just sounds—sounds without meaning. It takes human consciousness to imagine meaning in the seascape, to find the distance to the horizon to be theatrical, for example. Even the sound of the woman’s voice and that of the speaker’s and the companion’s voices are, as sounds alone, meaningless. As sound shaped into words, however, the woman’s voice in song gives the sharpest possible perception of the sky vanishing at the horizon. In her song, that vanishing has the human meaning of solitude. One lives in the actual physical world, but mentally one lives in the world as one perceives or imagines it. The singer’s creative imagination is so powerful that whatever identity the sea has in itself is transformed into the identity given it in her song. The world the woman inhabits, as she strides by the sea in her solitude, is the world she feels and expresses.