“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 out the sea,/Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.” The speaker of the poem, after hearing the woman’s song, asks “Ramon Fernandez” to explain, if he can, why this reordering has taken place. Ramon Fernandez was an actual French critic, but when Wallace Stevens was asked about the allusion he claimed that he chose the name at random. (Since Stevens was acquainted with Fernandez’s work, the disclaimer may be suspect.) One can think of the Fernandez in the poem as “the critic” or simply as an intelligent listener. In the last five-line section, the speaker, still addressing Fernandez, answers his own question by referring to the “blessed rage for order” which is responsible for the transformation. This “maker’s rage to order words of the sea” causes humans to search for more precise definitions of their points of arrival and departure. In studying the obscure hints of the nature of humanity, humans seek more exact and intense poetry: “In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”
The poem’s title is reflected in the title of the collection, Ideas of Order (1935). At this point in his work, Stevens had turned from the Florida images of fecund nature that dominated his earlier poems to more active poems exploring and defining the act of creative perception.
Forms and Devices
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...
(The entire section is 2,614 words.)