Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“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...
(The entire section is 626 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1283 words.)
The opening stanza of the poem, along with the title, help set the stage for the action that transpires in the poem itself. Right away, Stevens distinguishes between the mind and external reality and also the singer and the sea, but as is always the case for Stevens, these divisions are never hard and fast. Readers do know a few things, though. There is a singer, who is a female. There is a speaker and also a companion, probably Ramon Fernandez of stanza six. They are all walking along the sea. Of all these agents, the agent receiving the primary attention is the female singer. The poem opens with a rather remarkable claim that she sings “beyond the genius of the sea.” But Stevens describes the sea as a “wholly body” that both makes “a constant cry” and causes a constant cry. The syntax of this stanza is confusing because so many phrases may modify each other. The result of this lack of distinction is a sense of merging, a theme Stevens will develop throughout the poem. It’s difficult to tell what belongs to what. What does emerge, though, is a sense that the cry takes on an inhuman significance, that it becomes an inspiring or even spiritual force that unites sea, land, speaker, and singer. The speaker of the poem may not comprehend exactly what’s going on, but some sort of larger, spiritual understanding of the whole of experience is taking place.
Stevens is quick to point out in the...
(The entire section is 2148 words.)