The Idea of Order at Key West

By Wallace Stevens 1879–1955 Wallace Stevens
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 the 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.

Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West” from Collected Poems. Copyright 1923, 1951, 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Source: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Wallace Stevens 1879–1955

SCHOOL / PERIOD Modern

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Music, Nature, Philosophy, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Language & Linguistics, Religion, The Spiritual, Living, The Mind

Poetic Terms Blank Verse

 Wallace  Stevens

Biography

Wallace Stevens is one of America's most respected poets. He was a master stylist, employing an extraordinary vocabulary and a rigorous precision in crafting his poems. But he was also a philosopher of aesthetics, vigorously exploring the notion of poetry as the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality. Because of the extreme technical and thematic complexity of his work, Stevens was sometimes considered . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Music, Nature, Philosophy, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Language & Linguistics, Religion, The Spiritual, Living, The Mind

SCHOOL / PERIOD Modern

Poetic Terms Blank Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.