Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In 1954, the year before his death, Wallace Stevens was asked to define his major theme for a contributor’s column. His clear, direct statement might have been taken from almost any of his earlier critics’ analyses. His work, he said,suggests the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfillment. In the creation of any such fiction, poetry would have a vital significance. There are many poems relating to the interactions between reality and the imagination, which are to be regarded as marginal to this central theme.
This summary statement encapsulates the general thrust of Stevens’s poetry and the motivation behind “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a relatively early poem.
One of the characteristics that establishes Stevens’s modernism is the self-reflexiveness of his work. His poems are all about writing poetry; they reflect themselves. This poem explores three questions, all relating to the creative act. It asks, What is the relationship between the imagination and reality in art? What does art do for, or to, its perceiver? Where does art originate?
The relationship between sea and song, as described in the first part of the poem, illustrates that ideally art puts reality into a human structure without violating the nature of that reality—that is, without falsification. The speaker emphasizes the role of the imagination as “maker” but suggests that...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
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