“Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens

girl on beach

"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 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."

The poem, “Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens is about a man in Key West listening to a girl singing on the beach and noticing the balance of her voice and the world around her. He wonders what the balance is of things; who is the maker and who is simply the reverberation? When the girl stops singing, Stevens continues to examine what happens to the order.

Most of the comparisons are ordered in trifectas. For instance in the first stanza the ocean mimicked the girl’s song, making its own cry and also causing a constant cry. In the second stanza the girl hears something and sings it. THis singing “stirred the grinding water and gasping wind”. She made the song and the sea was only the place in which she sang it, but there is still the presence of something larger than the sea, the sky, and the voice. The first level always seems to be the most literal and rudimentary, such as the literal presence of the ocean. The girl seems to be the middle level, taking in things from the lower level and combining them to feed the highest level: a combination of human production and a higher power, be it God or science.

The girl is made to be the glue between the lowest level and the highest level. Her voice makes the “sky acustest at its vanishing”, sharpening the line between the sea and sky (or heaven). She is the “single artificer”, or creator, of what’s around her, adopting the sea as her own, however, she has no world except for the one she creates. She is in the middle ground: on an island, a thin sliver of land between the sea and the sky. She is also on Key West, the farthest point south in the US, on the border, the tip of land and sea.

The last two stanzas are after the girl  has stopped singing. The narrator wants to know how it is possible, when it took the girl’s voice to master the ocean, it took only lights to master the night, arranging it into “emblazoned zones”. This illustrates that even though it may not take too much effort to sing a song that drowns out the sound of the ocean or to light a lantern to illuminate the night, there is still that higher elvel which can override both, the un-masterable mystery that cannot be explained, as mentioned in the last stanza.

The maker has such a rage to find order between levels. It has always been the human tendency to try and stitch together the worldy and the divine and put things in order and more understandable, such as in writing and analyzing poetry. Everything must have an order and a meaning to somehow relate to life, it gets rather crazy. The lines between heaven and earth will always be “ghostly demarcations”, hazy lines, filled with only the jammering of humanity trying to find way to talk sense into things that are unexplainable.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by iheartfilm on February 23, 2009 at 1:53 am

    One of my favorites. Need to dive into his Collected Poems. Haven’t read it in a while.

    Chris

    Reply

  2. Posted by Ajax on April 8, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    always seemed to me there’s a funny connection between this girl singing and the narrator singing to a seal in Bishop’s ‘at the fishhouses.’

    Reply

  3. Posted by Thomas on November 10, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Very well set up. Poem allows the reader, if the reader places themselves in the shoes of the speaker, to let their reaction to what they are reading create their own perspective of how the differing ends of nature’s spectrum are coming together. Instead of looking so deep into the exact wording, and trying to make the poem shape itself around your beliefs, let the poem shape your beliefs to fit into the wording. Personally, going about it this way gave me a much better insight as to where the song’s power was actually coming from.

    Reply

  4. great poem on the theme of balance between fact and fancy,world and divine

    Reply

  5. great poem on the theme of balance between fact and fancy,world and divine.relationship b/w music and poetry

    Reply

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