Week 164: The Idea of Order at Key West, by Wallace Stevens

While my attitude to the writing of poetry is essentially a flexible ‘whatever works’, I suppose I do incline somewhat to traditional values: poems are made of words, and words are made of meaning, and if you don’t understand what a poem means at the literal level you are probably just fooling yourself if you claim to admire it. This gives me a bit of a problem with Wallace Stevens. I have read this poem many times, liking its musicality and imagery, but to be honest I still have very little idea what Stevens is trying to say here. The simple explanation, of course, is that it’s my fault for being thick, yet the unworthy suspicion remains that maybe Stevens wasn’t too sure either. And yet, whatever it was, he does say it rather beautifully. How tempting just to relax and go with the music, even if in the end I return to poets like Frost where the sense may be more subtle than you think but you can always trust that it is there. 

The Idea of Order at Key West

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.

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.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
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.

Wallace Stevens


10 thoughts on “Week 164: The Idea of Order at Key West, by Wallace Stevens

  1. I agree with your assessment of Wallace Stevens. His work is highly musical, but too elusive. “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” is one of my favorites, though I can’t really tell you exactly what he means.

  2. In the section beginning “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know” the singing (which has now ended) seems to have had a profound effect on the speaker. In response to the singing he (I’ll call the speaker he) thinks the lights of the boats master the night. They seem to impose order on it, making it deeper and more enchanting.

  3. Hi David, I hope it’s OK if I carry on with a few more comments. The speaker claims – he’s trying to work it out and may change his mind later – that the sounds of the sea and wind “never formed to mind or voice”. If they’re considered as a person then they’re just a body, lacking whatever else makes a person. In contrast to this “what she sang was uttered word by word”. There is a voice (and a mind). There are phrases and in them “stirred / The grinding water and the gasping wind”.

  4. If the singing was only the voice of the sea or the voice of the sky it would be “sound alone”. But in fact she’s not just a voice, she creates a world, she orders Key West. The sea in that world is her sea and the sky is her sky. She determines the angle of the sky at the horizon? She measures exactly the sky’s level of solitude? He doesn’t give a particular example of how she creates the sea. He might for example say she determines the level of pain (or alarm?) in the grinding water?

  5. The last section beginning “Oh! Blessed rage for order” seems to express a passionate desire to continue to order aspects of the world and to do it by marking boundaries never marked before (“ghostlier demarcations”) and providing ever more sensitive descriptions (“keener sounds”)? That’s the end of my comments. I suspect that another reader might read the poem very differently.

  6. Hi David, I see you’ve indented lines in “Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death”. I didn’t realise you could do indents. Could you indent “It was her voice that made” so that it starts below where the previous line ends?

    • Sorry, I can’t get this to work. I don’t know why the indentation works on ‘Thoughts Of Phena’ but on this one it obstinately refuses to implement it whatever I try – it looks OK on the edited text but then disappears on the real thing. Might have to wait for a visit from my grandson!

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