Gyorgyi Voros; On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Gyorgyi Voros; On "The Idea of Order at Key West" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Gyorgyi Voros Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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