The Idea of Order at Key West Critical Overview
by Wallace Stevens

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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

“The Idea of Order at Key West” is one of Stevens’ better known poems and the most important poem in the collection Ideas of Order. Some critics think that this poem is one of Stevens’ finest, and many cite it as among the best of his early poetry.

Early critics of the poem tended to praise what they considered a strong transforming imagination, reminiscent of the high romanticism of Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley. One of Stevens’ first major readers, Frank Kermode, in his book Wallace Stevens, claimed the poem “may stand as a great, perhaps belated, climax to a whole age of poetry that begins with Coleridge and Wordsworth; it celebrates the power of the mind over what they called ‘a universe of death.’” Similarly, Lucy Beckett, in her book titled Wallace Stevens, argues that “the poem’s marvelous conclusion, suggests in its triumphant but still calm cadences a glimpsed victory over poverty that could be the poet’s or could be any man’s.” Like Kermode and Beckett, Alan Perlis, in Wallace Stevens: A World of Transforming Shapes, praises the ability of the singer to transform the world into her own personal song, claiming the “intellectual aspect of the heroic act, the act of localizing nature in the mind, is forcefully expressed” in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” These critics tended to equate the solitary nature of the singer as she appears in stanzas two and three with Stevens himself because their model for a strong poetic presence would choose order over disorder; however, in so doing, they miss the subtleties of the final stanzas.

More recent critics have suggested that “The Idea of Order at Key West” turns on questions of ambiguity and relation, themes that have emerged in the last ten years. These themes are also hallmarks of Stevens’ work. For Joseph Carroll, in his book Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction , “The Idea of Order at Key West” is an important poem because while the poem does not locate evidence of a transcendent spirit, the “spirit that is present— first in song and in the sea and then in the glassy lights—sheds its influence all around the men who are seeking it.” For...

(The entire section is 563 words.)