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Critical Essay on "The Idea of Order at Key West"
Greg Barnhisel

Along with "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," "Peter Quince at the Clavier," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," and "Sunday Morning," "The Idea of Order at Key West" is one of Wallace Stevens' best-known and most anthologized poems. Like many of his works, the poem takes place largely in the head of the narrator and is a meditation on the idea of thinking, on the process of perception, on the faculty of the imagination. From his earliest days as a poet until the end of his life, Stevens' most persistent concern remained the interaction of mind and world. Is the world out there real? Does it have a material existence apart from humans perceiving it? Or is the world as it is seen, heard, and felt just a projection of human imagination? If not, is imagination somehow organizing or ordering the world for humans? For all of his continuing fascination with lush tropical landscapes and fecund nature, Stevens is not even sure that the world outside of his mind even exists. This final question is the one that drives "The Idea of Order at Key West." The poem takes place as the narrator, who is probably Stevens himself (although persona is not an essential aspect of this poem), is walking along the beach in Key West, Florida, and listening to a woman sing. Her song makes him see some kind of order in the natural world, and he begins to wonder whether her singing created that order or whether it just allowed him to see the order. The book in which the poem in question appears takes its title from the poem. Ideas of Order contains many poems meditating on these issues, but Stevens' first book, Harmonium (1923), introduces these themes powerfully. Two of that book's poems in particular, "Anecdote of the Jar" and "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon," are prefigurations of "The Idea of Order at Key West." In "Anecdote of the Jar," the narrator speaks of placing a jar upon a hill; this jar makes "slovenly" the wilderness that "surround that hill." Continuing with his discussion of the jar's effect on the landscape, the narrator notes how the presence of the jar made the wilderness "no longer wild." Its presence organizes the apparently chaotic world around it. Throughout the poem, the narrator contrasts the disorganized fecundity of nature with the sterile organization of the manmade object. The final stanza sums up the jar's effects on the landscape:

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The similarities to "The Idea of Order at Key West" are striking. In this poem, the narrator again contrasts manmade art, in this case, a simple jar, with the vast multiplicity of nature. Although he does not actually use the term in either poem, he is clearly referring to it, and in "The Idea of Order at Key West," he calls the singer an "artificer." Stevens does not mean art in the sense that someone uses the word-products of the creative process that are intended for aesthetic contemplation and enjoyment. Rather Stevens is using the term with its full etymological resonance. The word art derives from an Indo-European root that means "to join or fit together." From this root are derived any number of English words that indicate different types of joining or making: artifice, artisan, artifact, artful, articulate, and artificial are examples. Art is organized. It has a principle of order. In the poem, the power of human imagination, which always strives for order and organization, brings out the order in nature. But, Stevens always asks himself, is the order inherent in nature or does the presence of an artifact that is ordered cause humans to see order that might not really be there? Another of the poems from Harmonium proposes an answer to that question. The first stanza of "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon," in the voice of an unnamed narrator, tells in a highly abstract tone...
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