A Wisdom Reading: Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West

I read this poem at my mother’s funeral in 1989. At the time I think it was because it was the most profound statement I could make about life, death, and the nature of reality, mind and spirit.

The earliest knowledge I have of Stevens is through my childhood friend Stephen Philbrick. Stephen had tacked up a verse of “The Man With The Blue Guitar” on a refrigerator somewhere and over the course of going in and out of a kitchen, I learned that Wallace Stevens was someone I should pay attention to.

Later I read Stevens’ poems with Susan Watt, a woman who profoundly affected the course of my life. Somewhere along that time I think I settled upon The Idea of Order at Key West as quintessential Stevens. “Quintessential” here to mean impenetrable, filled with wonderful phrasings that left my soul in a state of limerence and wondering what the hell it all meant.

Susan Watt II was a period of great stress in my life. It was during that time I decided to memorize poems the way that I had learned Japanese — by ear and on my cassette player in my car. To that end I found some Spoken Art recordings and memorized two poems by heart, one of which was Wallace Stevens reading The Idea of Order at Key West. I also remember a poet saying this: “that the printed page was where we examined the works of a poem but the stage was where we could give the poem the works.” And it was in listening to Stevens perform his poetry that on a gut level I began to understand what it was he was saying.

It all sort of made sense in a very sense-filled way. For example, there are people who don’t understand a movie device of a character who has died and is looking at his life in a sort of flashback theatre production. They expect (in this case)a life of Cole Porter to start when he was little and progress from there. I encountered this the other night when I was sitting with a friend of a friend watching “Delovely” when this woman finally said with some exasperation “I’m not getting this at all.” I filled in the device for her. Then it was “Oh, I see.” and it all began to fall in place for her.

Same thing with poetic devices. Is Stevens actually out walking with Ramon Fernandez on one of the outer beaches of Key West and they both hear a woman singing? It seemed to work that way for one reviewer of the poem but I would prefer to think of the opening line as saying “The muse of poetry sings of and beyond the reality of the sea. A reality that is God’s genius.” The sea no more formed or created the poem about itself than a ghost contains the essence of the physical self:

Like a body wholly body, fluttering Its empty sleeves.

Those lines are oddly enough one of the most memorable in Stevens reading. It has been years since I have heard him read the poem and yet Like a body wholly body, fluttering Its empty sleeves is as seared into my memory as some movie images.

Like a holy body with no substance or reality. At the end of the poem I think the speaker in the poem realizes that the wholly/holy body is doing a bit more that just fluttering its empty sleeves. The “grinding water” inspires the poetry, but the poet, the singer, is herself the primary origin of the song: it was she and not the sea the hearers heard.

But the poem goes on to ask the question Whose spirit is this? Where does a poem, in a universal sense, come from? And if you answer imagination and roll over to go back to sleep, well this is not the poem for you. What is imagination? Is it just an echo of the sea or the outer sky…but it’s not. It is more than that. More even than the poet‘s voice, and the echo it sets up in the soul, set as it is among the meaningless plungings of water and the wind, and all the rhetorical and stage devices known to man…Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres Of sky and sea.

No the answer is that the poet and that echo of soul and holy spirit which creates the reality of the sea, a sea that will surrender itself to that force:

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.

There is a moment in the poem where the wonder over all these questions is momentarily stilled, but then comes the moment when the singing stops and we feel the presence in the poem of a spiritual force greater than the water and wind or the singer/imagination. It is this force that inspires her song and that echoes itself among the lights of the fishing boats. The force of a holy spirit is an objective presence, something that is not of ourselves. It is not the speaker or the poet or the imagination but the glassy lights:

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.

And haven’t we all experienced this sort of enchantment and been simply unable to apprehend the nature of it? The words to be ordered to try to capture and define those moments, are they not driven by a rage to order words about the sea, the portals, and our origins, which also come from them. These are the portals of mystic vision, perhaps a vision into “our origins.” These origins, in turn, if they are the origins of the spirit, are themselves the portals of vision. The ending is ambiguous, as is the nature of God.

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.

A quote from Saint Augustine informs the act of reading: Treat the scripture of god as the face of god. Melt in its presence. Not only for scripture but this happens when the soul resonates with a holy spirit and melts in the presence of truth:

We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
G.K. Chesterton 

Stevens makes me remember in this poem and isn’t that what poetry is all about? The magic of Stevens here is that while he explains this to us, he demonstrates what Chesterton was speaking to as well.

One comment

  1. I have just discovered your site. I am a priest in Holland. Congratulations with the profundity of all this, and with the work of putting it together. (The necessary converse: remain humble, become more humble.) In recent years I have become very much interested in Stevens, lovely stuff. I agree that the Idea of Order is a central poem of his, and full of his most lovely language. But in Stevens there is depth after depth.

    Chesterton and I go way back. I find it great to find someone who puts these two together. The title I would like to give Chesterton: Doctor humilis. What do you think? Chesterton is for me the expression of wonder before the world as creation of God, childlike wonder (line connecting GKC with Therese).

    Stevens explores the creative spirit in man, the other pole, and yet arriving miraculously
    at the same, as in Chesterton’s archteypal story of the man who goes around the world to arrive at home, finally realizing the meaning of that home. (I love the story of Steven’s baptism, hope it’s true, pray for his soul, and all souls.)

    God bless you, And do your best to let his work be done! (Tough job, but worthwhile) Pray that I do the same.

    In Christ,
    Fr Carl Kuss, L.C.

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