Desire and the Power of Poetry
Wallace Stevens is a great poet because he is a poet of many themes. His poems interrogate the borders of reality and imagination, pose questions about presence and absence, dramatize the ongoing dialogue between the body and the mind, and search for a balance between intellect and emotion. Stevens desired both to write poems and reach a large number of people—two potentially mutually exclusive desires since few Americans read poetry. Desire is an important word for Stevens because the concept of desire may be his major theme. For Stevens, desire is the most human emotion. Everyone has desire. Everyone wants fame, love, fulfillment, closeness, happiness, good food, and a nice place to live. The list is endless. Thus, Stevens sees desire as the great universal connector. People are connected to each other through the fact that they all desire, and Stevens believes that poetry is the best art form for articulating and embodying that desire.
Since poetry and desire cannot be separated for Stevens, his poems about desire are almost always also about poetry or the power of poetry. Like Sappho, Shakespeare, Goethe, Wordsworth and many other great writers before him, Stevens tries to get at the emotional element of poetry by linking it with music and song. People tend to connect songs and music with emotions, and Stevens knows this. He also knows that poetry was originally read or sung to musical accompaniment, so he remains aware of the lyric poem’s grounding in music. Stevens likes to bridge poetry and song because he sees this fusion as a kind of symbol for bridging human desire with human expression. Certainly in his first book, Harmonium, and in his later books, like The Auroras of Autumn and The Rock, the poems pulse with the power and urgency of desire. But, in the early 1930s, as Stevens is writing the poems that would make up Ideas of Order, he seems to grow somewhat skeptical of poetry’s ability to embody or fully represent desire.
In “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” a poem from Harmonium, Stevens writes that music means “desiring you,” but in a different poem fourteen years later, he writes that “the waltz / Is no longer a mode of desire.” Given the fact that Stevens likes to think of music as a metaphor for poetry, one might believe that Stevens feels his poetry has lost some spunk, that it cannot continue to carry the energy of human desire and emotion. However, Stevens does make a distinction between the waltz and music itself. Perhaps it is the “old music” (as he says) that cannot adequately express desire. Perhaps what Stevens is saying is that a new music is needed, a new poetry that connects human desire with actual humans. That is, he wants to write a poetry that puts human beings back in touch with their desire through language. This desire for connection seems to be a powerful theme at work in “The Idea of Order at Key West.”
In his poem, “Ghosts As Cocoons,” Stevens writes, “Where is sun and music and highest heaven’s lust, / For which more than any words cries deeplier?” The cry is the vocalization of internal desire—the internal made external. Likewise, the new music is that which takes the internal movements of the old and transforms them into an inclusive, communal vision of the new. For Stevens, the great project of poetry is to transform private vision (the vision of the poet) into a public vision (the vision of his readers and the world around him). This is exactly what the female singer accomplishes in “The Idea of Order at Key West” and why this poem serves as a nice metaphor for his work as a whole. He wants his poetry to have the same effect on his readers that the woman’s song has on the speaker of the poem.
Yet, the speaker remains separate from the shadowy singer in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and some reasons why that is might provide some insight into the transformation the speaker goes through in the poem. The gay waltz in the poem mentioned above goes...
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