Joseph Carroll: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

"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 University Press.


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