On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Mutlu Konuk Blasing

Only when Stevens can harmonize the philosopher's exoteric voice with the esoteric voice of the poet can he remain philosophically rigorous yet sound the "watery syllable" of the "saltier well." We hear this language of meditation again in "The Idea of Order at Key West," where he replaces linguistic and metaphysical dichotomies with a triangular arrangement and places the meditating mind at the apex. The poem returns to the discovery of "Sunday Morning" and to its dramatic form but casts the philosopher, the Emersonian essayist, as its central speaker. While it may revert stylistically to the "magnificent measure" that the post-romantic—with his eccentric truth—must learn to relinquish, "Key West" points to Stevens's way out of the impasse of poems like the "Comedian" and "Sea Surface Full of Clouds." It enables us to understand his subsequent insistence that poetry is the proper subject of poetry to be not a solipsistic withdrawal but an adequate response to just that danger.

The sea that "never formed to mind or voice" is, in "Key West," both the "inhuman," "veritable ocean" and an inner "nature" of Eros and death. And Stevens counterpoints the "grinding water and the gasping wind" of nature with the "song" of the "artificer" in such a way that neither subject nor object speaks through the other:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word. [CP, 128]

Both the pathetic fallacy and realism are rejected. The "plungings of water and the wind" are "meaningless" indeed, and we do not hear them, any more than we ever hear nature in poems. And the woman's song does not copy nature; it is "the voice that is great" (CP, 138) within her—her human "spirit" (stanza 3) or "breath"—rising in response to the sea's body and the "gasping wind." Yet we never hear the words of her lyric, either. The sea is an external nature with its meaningless, "constant cry"; its image and counterpart is the "she" who sings "word by word." Her measures and meters utter her song's law, just as the sea's cry sounds nature's law.

Stevens distances the lyric voice to the same extent that nature's echolalia is distanced. Instead, he centers on the speaker, the "connoisseur of chaos," and the "idea of order" he entertains. This meditating and mediating speaker is not a singer but a rhetorician, something of a critic even, and in his words, letters, and internal rhymes "relation appears" (CP, 215") between the "she" and "sea." Here Stevens goes beyond "Sea Surface" by explicitly affirming a relation between the sea and song—but only as the subject and predicate of a metaphor about the relationship of life and art. The Emersonian precedent for this poem is "The Snow-Storm," which also centers on the metaphor-making imagination, and invites us to "come see" a process "unseen"—a process not visible to the eye. In "Key West" such "seeing" becomes the link between "sea " and "she."

In this deconstruction of a romantic fusion of nature and subject, Stevens constructs a central rhetoric. In the words of the poem's speaker, the alien depths of a nature at once external and internal meet in the surfaces of a poetic language that glosses

The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. [CP, 130]

The song has a transforming significance only for its hearer, who hears a new, "amassing harmony" as much beyond the song as beyond the sea. For the critic, the singer's voice makes "the sky acutest at its vanishing" and measures "to the hour its solitude." Her measures open intercourse between nature and "ourselves," mastering and portioning out the darkness of inner and outer seas—but only in the "meta-phoric" speech of the critic who "inter-prets" and outlines the connection between artifice and sea, form and nature, music and death. He occupies the center, which is a portal or passageway—spatially and temporally "measured" by the singer—from a dark sea outside us to a darker sea inside, "dimly-starred" either way.

This metaphoric passage is, appropriately, a "fragrant" portal: the synesthesia makes the image a proper vehicle for its tenor, the earthly and earthy truth of figurative language. Measuring a space and time, the singer opens a door that delivers us into yet "separates us from the wind and sea" (CP, 87). The metaphoric/temporal passage is guarded by the "fragrant mother" of "Fictive Music," who belongs to the same "sisterhood of the living dead" (CP, 87), and the poet's muse—the mother of memory and imagination, the "mother of heaven, regina of the clouds" (CP, 13)—is also his earthly source, the "bearded queen" who would "feed" on him (CP, 507 ). All are imaginings of the same "mother" who opens and closes our earthly discourse, who binds the "handbook of heartbreak" (CP, 507 ). Thus Stevens understands metaphoric language as the threshold of fiction and truth, where the philosopher's "human should or would" and the poet's "fatal is" meet. In Stevens's impure voice, Emerson's "fatal is" becomes a copula that marks metaphoric unions.

from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

James Longenbach

Stevens always insisted that "Ramon Fernandez" was "not intended to be anyone at all," and, in a sense, like the "Mr. Burnshaw" of "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," he is a caricature [Stanley Burnshaw, as addressed in Stevens’ poem, was active as a Marxist critic in the 1930s]. Yet most of Stevens’s readers will know that Fernandez was a critic familiar to Stevens from the pages of the Nouvelle revue française, the Partisan Review, and the Criterion (where he was translated by T. S. Eliot). Fernandez’s criticism became increasingly politically engaged in the 1930s, especially after the violent riots and the general strike he witnessed in Paris in the wake of the Stavisky Affair. (The mastermind of illicit financial deals in which the French government was implicated, Stavisky was found dead – apparently by his own hand, though his suicide seemed to most French citizens to have been far too convenient.) After the riots, Fernandez published an open letter to Gide in the Nouvelle revue française, asserting that while he had not opposed the fascist cause before the riots, he was now converted to the struggle of the proletariat. The letter provoked a number of letters in response, some of them challenging Fernandez, others simply canceling subscriptions to the Nouvelle revue française.

That this controversy lay behind Stevens’s use of Fernandez’s name in "The Idea of Order" would have seemed apparent to anyone who read Stevens’s poem in Alcestis along with the current issue of the Partisan Review, which contained a translation of Fernandez’s "I Came Near Being a Fascist." There Fernandez confessed that he had "a professional fondness for theorizing, which tends to make one highly susceptible to original ‘solutions.’" It was just that susceptibility that bothered Stevens and made him challenge Fernandez to answer a question to which he knew there was no certain answer. Stevens’s interest in the ambiguity of ideas did not mean that he took ideas lightly; on the contrary, he lamente what he thought of as "the Lightness with which ideas are asserted. Held, abandoned" in "the world today." Nor did Stevens mean to equate ambiguity with the intentional obscuring of an ambiguous world; he condemned the poet "who wrote with the idea of being deliberately obscure" as "an impostor." With his public announcements of political commitments and conversions, Fernandez was the opposite of Stevens, who recoiled at the idea of associating himself with any group or program that offered "solutions." Fernandez, suggests Stevens in "The Idea of Order," might have been certain about the source and effect of the singer’s song, but the only thing Stevens was sure of was that in his certainty, Fernandez would have been wrong.

… Stevens believed that we cannot live without ideas of order, but like [R. P.] Blackmur he understood that he could not talk about order without raising the specter of disorder, and that any idea of order that did not leave space for its own dissolution could not be tolerated. In this sense, responding to Fernandez’s dogmatism, Stevens might have titled his poem "The Idea of Disorder at Key West." As he would put it in "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," "even disorder may, / So seen, have an order of its own." In the terms of Kenneth Burke that both Blackmur and Stevens admired, these poems of order do not offer "the seasoned stocks and bonds of set belief," but "a questioning art, still cluttered with the merest conveniences of thinking, a highly fluctuant thing often turning against itself and its own best discoveries.""

From James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (New York: Oxford U P, 1991), 161-162.

J. Ronald Latimer

Excerpt from the editorial defining the policy of Alcestis, where "The Idea of Order at Key West" appeared as the lead-off poem in the first issue:

"Is it the poet’s function to attack social evils (as Messrs. Spender and Auden do) and make him merely the instrument of an economic theory or shall he (like Mr Stevens and Miss Sitwell) rather try to capture and intensify the beauty of things as the aesthetic?

… It will therefore be the policy of Alcestis to publish only verse concerned with presenting artistic (as opposed to social) ends. The poet’s politics do not concern the editor, but his aesthetic themes and the manner in which he expresses them are of real importance.

From J. Ronald Latimer, editorial for Alcestis.

Gyorgyi Voros

Stevens's sense of the American experience of the Nature / culture relation was that modern awareness of Nature--whether Nature be manifest as wilderness, as the human body, or as the human unconscious--had diminished dangerously. Stevens complained, "The material world, for all the assurances of the eye, has become immaterial. It has become an image in the mind." Human preconception had so blunted the human experience of and relation to nonhuman Nature, upon which the human rested, that indeed nothing but empty anthropocentric image remained. Stevens knew that a cancerous humanism diminishes human experience. "The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real," he asserted.

This interdependence of imagination and reality is, of course, the subject of "The Idea of Order at Key West." The poem's speaker, walking on the shore, listening to the singer, posing questions and propositions about the nature of art to his companion, posits a series of antinomies which can be reframed as usefully within the categories of Nature and culture and human and nonhuman as they can within reality and imagination. The speaker pits mind against Nature’s "body wholly body," singer's song against the "meaningless plungings of water and the wind," the glassy lights of the town against the darkness of the sea, and language against the "words of the sea." While he asserts the mutual influences between sea and song, he emphasizes an essential discontinuity between them and averts any suggestion of an easy synthesis: "The song and water were not medleyed sound / Even if what she sang was what she heard," he cautions and stresses that "it was she and not the sea we heard."

The poem's central question asks, "Whose spirit is this?" That is, what interface exists between human and Nature in song, the poem's metonym for art? The speaker has already shown that the singer's song fails as direct translation of the sea's "constant cry," nor can song effect a seamless identification between singer and natural elements. Is it then a production of individual vision against the spectacular stage set of Nature? After all, "she was the maker of the song she sang. /... [the] sea / Was merely a place by which she walked to sing."

The poem's final third is customarily read as an avowal of the romantic doctrine of the mind's ultimate superiority over Nature: after all, "It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing" and the aftermath of her song that answers to the human "rage for order." In the resounding silence that follows the song, the lights of the fishing boats

Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Indeed, Helen Vendler's reading of this poem places it within the Wordsworthian mind / Nature dichotomy and reads it as asserting the romantics' sense of "the power of poetry over nature." Similarly, Harold Bloom writes that the poem "remains equivocal and perhaps impossible to interpret" because it simultaneously "affirms a transcendental poetic spirit yet cannot locate it, and the poem also remains uneasily wary about the veritable ocean, which will rise up against Stevens yet again."

Placing this poem too squarely within the romantic framework of mind over Nature, however, discounts the poem's true dynamic, which does not rest solely on the dichotomy between singer and song. The two listeners themselves engage in creation (song making) by attending to sea and singer. The stimuli around the speaker--singer, song, companion, "bronze shadows heaped / On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres / Of sky and sea," night descending, lights emerging--engender in him a flow of propositions, questions, and highly charged perceptual experiences. Rather than depicting the power of poetry over Nature, the poem depicts the power of the sum of perceptual experiences created by human and nonhuman components in the speaker, whose main role in the poem may be summarized as that of creative listener. . . .The night deepens after the song has ended; the resounding silence, as it were, heightens the effects of song and what might be regarded as the visual analogues to song, the lights, boats, town, and other human productions that order and "portion out" the natural scene. This difference--the juxtaposition and interface between before and after--is more significant than any element of the experience. It is finally the speaker, not the singer or the song, who effects the enchantment of the night.

From Notations of the Wild: Ecology in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. University of Iowa Press.

Janet McCann

If poetry is to usurp the function of religion, then there must be a theodicy for it. Such can be found in "The Idea of Order at Key West," perhaps the most anthologized poem of this group. The participants in this poem play out the drama of the creative engagement of mind and world. "She," the speaker, the sea, and "Ramon Fernandez" demonstrate how the imagination enhances reality without falsifying it. The poem begins with the unbridgeable gulf between mind and world and attempts to define the dynamics of their interaction. . . .

There is a "genius" or presiding spirit to nature, but its cry is "not ours"; it is nature's own impenetrable utterance. (Compare this evocation of nature's voice with that of one of Stevens's last poems, "This Region November," in which the mind at the end of its existence in time listens in near despair to this other language.) The woman identified only as "she" sings "beyond the genius of the sea" and in so doing changes nothing but what is in the mind; her song is like reality, but it is not the same as reality. The imagination is not the voice of reality, "the dark voice of the sea." Neither is it our own understandings of reality, "her voice and ours." Rather, it is the intensification of reality that is given from the imagination's engagement with it. The tragic sense of life's evanescence is heightened: "It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing" (CP, 129). The speaker then addresses Ramon Fernandez, whose name Stevens claimed to have chosen more or less at random but who is actually a French critic with whose work Stevens was familiar (LWS, 798, 823). Fernandez's criticism, which Stevens read in Nouvelle revue française as well as in English translation, does involve theories of perception as well as commentary on the relationship between poetry and social reality (Longenbach, 161). Perhaps, however, Fernandez, in a broad sense, is "the critic" or the theorist of poetry. He is asked for an explanation of how it could come about that those who heard the song found nature reordered or rearranged:

[McGann quotes lines 46-51]

It is the perceiver and not the critic, however, who provides the answer. The critic is instructed by the perceiver, who attributes the reordering of nature to desire so intense that it is designated a "blessed rage":

[lines 52-56]

The revision is all in the perception: the "lights" cause it. The poem uses images of geometry to show the radical change in the perceived world as a result of the woman's song. It is this "blessed rage for order," the fierce vision of the "maker," that is responsible for a life lived in full awareness. The "rage for order" causes the creation of that intense poetry ("keener sounds") of our scarcely understood origins and points of departure. These portals are vague, barely discernible ("dimly-starred"), but marked out. The blessed rage drives toward their articulation, their definition ("ghostlier demarcations"). "Ghostlier" suggests both shadowy and spiritual, as in the German geistlich. This poem includes one of Stevens's earlier suggestions that the poetic impulse is a hallowed one, sanctioned. The results of this "blessed rage" are a redefinition, or perhaps a more precise understanding, of what it is to be human. "The Idea of Order at Key West" is an early articulation of the ideas that invention is discovery and insights are genuine revelations. The demarcations are there; they are the to-be-discovered to which the "blessed rage" leads.

"The Idea of Order at Key West" reaches a pitch of exaltation not found in many other Stevens poems of the era.

From Wallace Stevens Revisited: "The Celestial Possible." Copyright 1995 by Twayne Publishers.

Pat Righelato

Indeed, in the ability to express potentía, an unforced intimacy with the sublime in consciousness and nature, Stevens was to prove more ‘capable’ than Emerson. He worked through the problem of the discrepancy of scale between consciousness and nature in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. It is a key poem in that its engagement with the sublime is schematic, yet lyrical.

In the first verse the girl singer (symbol of the lyric poet), who walks beside the sea, sings beyond the sea because the sea is incapable of expressive utterance; the sea is empty rhetoric — (what Crispin called ‘the brunt’): the sea is at once presence and absence.

In the second verse the problematic relationship between humanity and nature is stated: ‘The song and water were not medleyed sound’. The elements might seem to be ‘gasping’ for utterance but utterance is human. The decisiveness of the statement ‘But it was she’ affirms human significance but also bleakly acknowledges the autonomy of the created world of art — beside and beyond but not with the sea.

In verse four, the empty rhetoric of nature is only potentially sublime and meaningful: ‘the heaving speech of air’, ‘the meaningless plunges of water’ need the human voice to give them significance. There is moreover a discrepancy of scale in this theatre— the small figure of the girl and the huge ocean — but it is the girl who brings it all to bear:

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing

This line again suggests intensity given by poetic expression but also nature’s escape — ‘vanishing’ — a poignant expression of the separation of humanity and nature.

In verse five, the poet addresses a fellow human being, asking why it is that artistic expression (the song of the girl) has the magical effect of intensifying consciousness, seeming to order nature. In moonlight (the imagination’s symbol) the human lights seem to localise the cosmos: they ‘mastered the night and portioned out the sea’. It is an idea of order; it is the imagination’s power to communicate an idea of order.

The last verse is a celebratory chant, a celebration of the powers of language and of creative desire. In the last line the ‘ghostlier demarcations’ in moonlight, the imagination’s light, are ‘ghostlier’ because creations of the spirit creating its territory, its ‘demarcations’; the ‘keener sounds’ are the utterance of poetry, ‘keener’, more intense, sharper than the impotent ‘heaving’ rhetoric of nature. The final image is at once removed, shadowy and closer to us.

From Righelato, Pat, "Wallace Stevens." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.

Joseph Carroll

"Key West" opens with a simple assertion of the division between the mind and external reality; however, this assertion almost immediately becomes problematic:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

Apart from the singer and the listeners (later identified as the speaker and Ramon Fernandez), there are two agents in this stanza: the sea that is "wholly body" and "the veritable ocean." The phrase "of the veritable ocean" seems most nearly identifiable as the genitival object of "constant cry." It may also be the object of "mimic motion." The mindless water makes no sound, but it mimics the veritable ocean, presumably a spiritual force, and this mimicry either paradoxically constitutes a cry or causes a cry from the veritable ocean. Finally, "of the veritable ocean" may be a descriptive genitive modifying the "we" of "we understood." All these syntactic possibilities seem to merge in such a way that the cry, associated with mind, takes on a separate, transcendental identity while at the same time it vaguely influences or animates the sea, the singer, and the listeners. In other words, there is a spiritual presence distinct from yet somehow diffused through all the concrete elements in the scene that is being described. The cry, originating in the veritable ocean, is what in stanza two the woman hears and translates into her own song: "What she sang was what she heard."

[. . .]

If Stevens' problem were only to distinguish sea and singer--not to relate both of them to the veritable ocean--the poem could end with the second stanza. The "grinding water" inspires the woman's song, but she is herself the primary origin of that song: "it was she and not the sea we heard." The first three lines of stanza three draw out this separation still more sharply, so that we are brought back to where we began in line one. The singer makes her own song and the sea is merely "a place by which she walked to sing." At this point, Stevens states the main issue of the poem and shows that nothing has yet been solved. "Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew / It was the spirit that we sought." We know from the previous stanzas that it is not the sea speaking through the woman, not the dumb force of the elements forming to mind and voice. We also know that though the woman is the "the maker of the song she sang," she's not the sole force responsible for her song. Stevens does not give a specific answer to his question. All he can tell us is that "it was more than that," more than the voice of the sea and "more even than her voice and ours, among / The meaningless plungings of water and the wind." The song imposes meaning, but the source of meaning is something else. The rest of stanza four (after the paragraph break) gives itself over to a celebration of the Orphic autonomy of the singer. Her song masters the brute elements and assimilates them by transforming them into aesthetic meaning. The complex of forces narrows to a single point of creative freedom--the singer's.

The singer seems complete unto herself. There is no world for her beyond that of her own making, and the question "Whose spirit is this?" appears to have been set aside. In the fifth stanza, however, the question reemerges, for the world does not become spiritually empty when the singer leaves. . . .

Stevens had momentarily quelled his wonder by attributing sole mastery to "the single artificer." This mastery continues after the singing stops, again implying the presence of a spiritual force greater than the water and wind or the singer. It is this force that inspires her song and that deploys itself also in the perceptions of those who are walking among the lights of the fishing boats. That the force is an objective presence, something "not ours," is made evident in the externalization of these perceptions. It is the glassy lights and not the two men who master the night and the sea.

Stevens only dimly apprehends the nature of the enchantment he has experienced. No conclusion is reached, and the last stanza, an extended apostrophe with no main verb, abjures the form of proposition altogether. . . .

Because the rage to order concerns "ourselves" and "our origins," it refers to the speaker as much as to the singer. The order toward which the speaker strives is not, ironically, such as lends itself to any unequivocal precision of statement. The predicates of the phrase "words of" are grouped in no distinct order. The sea and the fragrant portals could be taken as separate entities; alternatively, portals could be taken as an appositive of sea. Neither the sea nor the portals stand in any clearly defined relationship to "our origins." The preposition "of" in "words of" may mean either about or from. It probably means both, and if so this dual meaning catches up the ambiguity of spiritual location that permeates the poem. The words to be ordered are about the sea, the portals, and our origins, and also from them. The fragrant portals are entranceways that have no spatial location. They are dimly starred as if they were remote passages in the night sky, but they are intended to evoke no concrete setting. They are simply the portals of mystic vision, perhaps vision into "our origins." These origins, in turn, if they are the origins of the spirit, are themselves the portals of vision.

"Key West" is a tour de force of paradoxical intimation and evocative equivocation. There is no definite proposition in the poem that asserts the existence of a transcendental spirit. Nonetheless, 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. Their associations and questions are themselves the "ghostlier demarcations" of the poem. The principle of order suspends itself between their ambiguous demarcations and the "keener sounds" that lend these demarcations an appearance of vivid precision.

From Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism. Copyright © 1987 by Louisiana State UP.

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan

Contrary to most criticism on this poem, it is not the supposedly eloquent and elegantly figured muse nor the assertion that "when she sang, the sea / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song, for she was the maker" (Stevens 1954, p. 129) that is ultimately the most striking about this poem, but rather the utterly self-conscious way in which "she" is exposed or appropriated within the fiction of the poem as a figure for Stevens himself and his "rage to order." This particular circumscription may well be the most revealing mark of the nature of the "idea of order" Stevens has in mind: at the specific moment that he breaks into the text, abruptly addressing Ramon Fernandez with the question about the "Mastering" of the night and the "portioning of the sea" (thus implicitly questioning the very idea of order that he is positing), Stevens places himself in a textual and hierarchical order above nature, above friend, and above the muse as artificer, inscribing himself as the author/authority of the world in which he sings. Here logo- and phallocentric assumptions of order coincide, forming a textual crux that glosses over the apparent exposure of the fictionality of the poetic word. It is not without significance that the muse is always referred to in the past tense: she literally is not present in the text. Thus, although the conclusion of the poem may imply that words are much like Derrida's "trace" (only "ghostly demarcations," even de-marcations), the tone of this poem is one of unwavering faith in poetic/phallic dominance. There is none of that uncertainty, reticence, or prolonged and painful questioning so characteristic of Bishop's verse.

from "Elizabeth Bishop: Pervesity as Voice," in Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender. Ed. Marilyn May Lombardi. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia.

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