The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Idea of Order at Key West” is a meditative poem in a relaxed iambic pentameter. Its fifty-six lines are broken into groups of uneven length that define the major points of its argument. The poem examines the interaction between imagination and reality through the figure of a woman who sings beside the sea and whose voice neither violates the reality of the sea nor simply reproduces it. She is the creator or “maker,” not merely a mirror. She puts the sea’s “dark voice” into human words, drawing it into the realm of human experience: “When she sang, the sea/ Whatever self it had, became the self/ That was her song, for she was the maker.” Her song is not an exact reproduction of nature’s own utterances. If it were it would not be meaningful to the human listener, but “would have been the heaving speech of air.” Nor could it be simply her own voice; “it was more than that.” The woman’s voice is a translation of the natural into the human, which allows her listeners to perceive their world anew. It is her song of nature that heightens the listeners’ sense both of the world itself and of their uncertain position in it: “It was her voice that made/ The sky acutest at its vanishing.”

The listeners find that at the conclusion of her song, the world has been re-ordered for them: The lights in the fishing boats at the harbor have created a new arrangement of the natural. These lights have “mastered the night and portioned...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The iambic pentameter of this poem is not, strictly speaking, blank verse, but irregular rhyme. The use and abandonment of rhyme seems appropriate to the poem’s portrayal of the creative act as an attempt to impose order—the system of language—on chaos, the reality of the sea. The rhymes themselves, often identical rhymes, suggest the motion of the waves.

The poem begins with two seven-line segments containing rhyme; the second is the most tightly structured, its lines concluding with the words “she,” “sound,” “heard,” “word,” “stirred,” “wind,” and “heard.” As the reader believes that a pattern has been established, however, the sections become more irregular and the vocabulary more varied. The flow of the poem becomes less artificial, more subtle, as it changes from rhyming iambic pentameter in the direction of more flexible blank verse. The last five lines, which make up the exalted address to the critic, conclude with the words “Ramon,” “sea,” “starred,” “origins,” and “sounds.”

The overall form of the first part suggests the subject: the sea put into words. The images and metaphors in this description of sea and singer emphasize their difference through imaginative combinations of them: “The water never formed to mind or voice,/ Like a body wholly body, fluttering/ Its empty sleeves.” The comparison is both physical and intellectual, and it illustrates Stevens’s agility in embodying aesthetic concepts in poetry. The sea’s inhumanness is ironically demonstrated by comparing it with the human, giving it attributes of “body” and clothing—“empty sleeves.” Lines such as “The grinding water and the gasping wind” bring the sea graphically into the poem as the backdrop and source of the woman’s song.

When the poem describes the song’s ending and the listeners turning “toward the town,” the tone and imagery “turn” too, in the direction of the final affirmation of poetry and humanity both. As the rhymes diminish, the images change from the sea’s repetitions to the ordering power of the lights on the boats—lights (and flames) tending to represent consciousness. From the disordered sea of reality one moves to geometric structures of light, “emblazoned zones and fiery poles,” which art has created by changing the way the real is envisioned.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

“The Idea of Order at Key West” was published in October 1934, in a group of eight poems. While there may have been a great deal of order...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Free and Formal Verse

“The Idea of Order at Key West” is written in both formal and free verse. It is a meditative...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1930s: The United States is hard hit by the Great Depression, with unemployment reaching nearly twelve million. Upon his...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Do you agree with the various critical interpretations of the poem? Do you have a different reading? If so, what is the basis for your...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

There is a video in the Voices and Visions series that situates Stevens’ poetry in historical and geographical settings. Critics and other...

(The entire section is 72 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Stevens’ The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, reissued in 1990, is a book that contains the poems “Idea of...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Beckett, Lucy, Wallace Stevens, Cambridge University Press, 1974, p. 1.

Bloom, Harold, Wallace...

(The entire section is 349 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.