The Idea of Order at Key West

by Wallace Stevens

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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.

In the penultimate stanza the speaker asks a man named Ramon Fernandez why, when the song was over and they turned toward town, they perceived an order in the night sky dotted by the random array of lights strung on the boats at anchor. In a sense, subjectivity makes people creators of the world in which they live, but an encounter with powerful art can stimulate one’s own creativity and...

(This entire section contains 1283 words.)

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make one’s perceptions more acute. So the experience of the woman’s song has caused the speaker and Fernandez to perceive the night sky as something more enchanting than they otherwise might have perceived. They imagined the sky as divided into “emblazoned zones and fiery poles,” much as, in earlier times, humans looked at scatterings of stars and connected the dots in their minds to reveal a pageant of lions and bears, an archer and a chained maiden.

The poem concludes by praising as “blessed” the human passion to find meaning in the world and human life—to order words into stories and songs that interpret. Words are abstractions: The word “chair” is not a chair, and a story of one’s life is not one’s life. Although words are “ghostlier demarcations,” as the speaker calls them, they are “keener sounds” than sounds that do not convey ideas, because they address the human need to understand.

The title of “The Idea of Order at Key West” embodies a contrast between the physical world (the sea and sky of Key West) and the mental world (ideas, imagination, subjective human perception) that runs throughout the poem and through many of Stevens’s other poems. At times Stevens’s speakers celebrate direct access to the physical world, unmediated by the distortions of human subjectivity, as in the poem “Of Mere Being,” in which a speaker is delighted by a bird’s song in itself, without imagining it as an expression of human thought or feeling, and declares “it is not the reason /That makes us happy or unhappy.” In contrast, the major motif of “The Idea of Order at Key West” is the iterated judgment of the superiority of the understanding of something to the thing itself. The passion implied by these iterations, and the surprising word “blessed,” make “The Idea of Order at Key West” Stevens’s strongest endorsement of human subjectivity.

This is not to deny the poem’s complexity. The work displays, for example, a Stevensian irony that complicates the speaker’s statements. In the same sentence in which he dismisses the “meaningless plungings of water and the wind,” he goes on to describe the seascape in gorgeous language such as “bronze shadows heaped/ On high horizons” and “mountainous atmospheres.” These descriptors are a human way of perceiving the sky and sea—it is not possible to escape subjective meaning, even when one is referring to the objective physical world in order to dismiss it as meaningless. Such characteristic irony occurs in “Of Mere Being” as well, with its highly wrought closing description of the bird, alliterative and internally rhymed, which causes the reader to realize that the very premise of this bird of pure Being is itself a fabrication, a human idea: The instant one is aware of a bird or of anything, it exists in one’s mind, for that is what it means to be aware of something.

During the period between the two world wars, when what has come to be called “high modernist literature” flourished and the development of theoretical physics accelerated rapidly, a divide grew between scientists and literary writers. Scientists sought objective understanding of the physical world, undistorted by human values and meaning, and literary writers valued as most important how the world feels, its human meaning. In this context, “The Idea of Order at Key West” can be seen as one of the great poems of high modernism, celebrating precisely that mode of understanding the world, human beings, and their origins that literature, not science, provides. Another context in which to consider the poem’s defense of the imagination is that of the difficult economic and political realities of the 1930’s and the difficulties at that time in Stevens’s own marriage. Stevens’s defense of the value of art in difficult times is like William Butler Yeats’s defense, in his great poem “Lapis Lazuli,” of art in a world on the verge of war.