Janet McCann: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

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.


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