Themes and Meanings
In 1954, the year before his death, Wallace Stevens was asked to define his major theme for a contributor’s column. His clear, direct statement might have been taken from almost any of his earlier critics’ analyses. His work, he said,suggests the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfillment. In the creation of any such fiction, poetry would have a vital significance. There are many poems relating to the interactions between reality and the imagination, which are to be regarded as marginal to this central theme.
This summary statement encapsulates the general thrust of Stevens’s poetry and the motivation behind “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a relatively early poem.
One of the characteristics that establishes Stevens’s modernism is the self-reflexiveness of his work. His poems are all about writing poetry; they reflect themselves. This poem explores three questions, all relating to the creative act. It asks, What is the relationship between the imagination and reality in art? What does art do for, or to, its perceiver? Where does art originate?
The relationship between sea and song, as described in the first part of the poem, illustrates that ideally art puts reality into a human structure without violating the nature of that reality—that is, without falsification. The speaker emphasizes the role of the imagination as “maker” but suggests that the “she” who is the singer of the poem is being as true as she can to what she observes, considering the limitation that she must express her vision in the human vehicle of words. (That the imagined world must be bound by the real is suggested in other of Stevens’s poems, such as “The Ordinary Women.”)
The question of what art does for its perceiver is given a double answer. Art provides an understanding of what would otherwise be the alien language of nature. Moreover, art increases one’s sense of one’s place in this world, although this position may be one of isolation and filled with uncertainties. In other words, art gives a heightened sense of both one’s world and oneself.
Finally, the source of art is represented as desire, as a human need that transcends logic. The source of art is a desire for truth and poetry at once. The poetic impulse is a furious need (a “rage”) to “order words of the sea,” or create order from the chaos of the world. Yet it is also a need to explore human origins and points of departure, “fragrant portals” barely perceived and shrouded in mystery. The pursuit of such understanding leads to both greater knowledge and more acute poetry (“In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds”). The poet alters how he or she and others perceive reality, and the source of this change is the “blessed rage” that is the poet’s curse and gift.
Reality and the Imagination
Late in his career, in fact, a year before his death, Stevens was asked to define the major theme of his poetry. As quoted by Lucy Beckett in Wallace Stevens, Stevens wrote that there “are many poems relating to the interactions between reality and the imagination” but that these poems were marginal to the central theme of a supreme fiction. “The Idea of Order at Key West” explores both of these themes, though more explicitly it serves as a stage for the tension between human imagination and human realities. The questions the speaker asks get at the heart of this dialectic: Is the song and its power only an external reality? Or does the power of the song lie in one’s ability to transform it into something personal?
In his poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird ,” Stevens writes, “I do not know which to prefer, ‘the blackbird whistling / Or just after.’” In this poem, as in “Key West,” Stevens is torn between actually hearing the songs and remembering and replying to them in his head. Finally, as Stevens suggests in the poem, one can never wholly embrace one over the...
(The entire section is 1,386 words.)