Skip to content

The Idea of Order At Key West

January 31, 2012

Thinking about how unsatisfying it can be to meet the author of your favorite book—most recently while discussing John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars and David Kirby’s poem “These Arms of Mine”–made me think of this poem by Wallace Stevens. This is the poem that first made me consider the idea that the person who sees a thing and tries to convey the feeling she gets from seeing that thing is making sense of the world–a sense that other people can share–at that moment.

The Idea of Order at Key West

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.

Thinking about “Those Arms of Mine,” in particular, makes me notice the purely sensual parts of this poem. The sea is “like a body wholly body, fluttering/Its empty sleeves.” A song is like “the grinding water and the gasping wind.”  The sea is “ever-hooded” and “tragic-gestured” which would be ridiculous–a pathetic fallacy–in any poem less abstract than this one. There is “sunken coral water-walled” and the sky is “acutest at its vanishing.”  The night is “enchanting” and there are “fragrant portals.”

The poem is about how the maker sees, and how her version of what she sees can enchant others, but on a purely sensual level, the images remind me that there is a world outside of the frozen, black-and white landscape that I have to fight my way through on these winter mornings. Somewhere there is a sea. Somewhere it is warm. And the only way I can get there is by reading about it.

I think that there is no better poet for the dead of winter than Wallace Stevens.  What do you think–what do you read when everything you love about the world seems frozen over and inaccessible and you need a guide for your imagination, someone to take you far, far away?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2012 8:41 am

    Any good book will do if i need to get far away- if the book doesn’t take me away, it’s not very good! 🙂

    • February 1, 2012 8:28 am

      True. What I like about poems is that they live in my head, so when I’m sliding across an icy parking lot, I can be thinking about sunken coral.

  2. Carol Schumacher permalink
    January 31, 2012 8:41 am

    Wow. I liked this poem, but I feel like I need to read it 100 times to come close to understanding it!

  3. January 31, 2012 9:23 am

    “Poetry is the revelation of a feeling,that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own” a great quote by Salvatore Quasimodo which beautifully sums up this sentiment.

    • February 1, 2012 8:31 am

      That is a good quotation, and it does apply to what I said, but I will maintain that no one–certainly not me and almost certainly no other writer–can sum up the sentiment of a poem. One of the points of a poem, at least for me, is that how it feels can’t be conveyed in any other way except those particular words in that particular order.

      • February 11, 2012 11:57 am

        this attempts to explain almost…………almost what one means :-}


        As with the topography of our emotions
        and the nebula of our thoughts,

        We define & communicate
        both mask & intention.

        ” A narrow fjord, a darkened sky,
        a breach in the clouds” occluded

        by language – although hints
        survive in poetry.


        • February 12, 2012 1:09 pm

          Oh, I see–that’s a good word there, “occluded”!

  4. January 31, 2012 9:31 am

    OK, that is freaky. I swear, I just read a quote by Salvatore Quasimodo: “Indifference and apathy have one name – betrayal.” and then I come here and see Parrish’s comment. What are the odds?

    Anyhoo. I now can’t remember what I was going to say. How convenient.

    Here’s hoping some warm sunny poems transport your mood. 🙂

    • February 1, 2012 8:33 am

      I, on the other hand, have not read anything by Quasimodo yet.

  5. January 31, 2012 10:58 am

    The very power of poets to move us from where we are to where we need to be is what compels totalitarian regimes to silence them.

    Here’s to much more fiery verse to warm these frigid days.

    • February 1, 2012 8:34 am

      From where we are to where the poets think we need to be, too!

  6. freshhell permalink
    January 31, 2012 11:54 am

    I will read anything that transports me…anywhere. I’ll take any really good, meaty novel that I can’t put down. I’m not reading one at the moment. My cold requires something I don’t have to think too hard about and now I’m glad I have the Sue Grafton book. It is the opposite of meaty but my brain is on vacation so the fact that it’s just purely plot is fine.

    • February 1, 2012 8:35 am

      What’s wrong with purely plot? That’s the attraction of Sherlock Holmes stories.

      • freshhell permalink
        February 1, 2012 2:54 pm

        This may shock you but I’ve never actually read the Holmes stories. It is true. But I love just about every movie/tv version of them. Nothing’s nec wrong with purely plot but when the characters aren’t really people, I don’t really care who gets killed or why. A lot depends on the writer. And the plot.

        • February 1, 2012 5:30 pm

          You have a treat in store for when you’re ready to read them! I saved the last one for a week, just so I wouldn’t have read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories for the first time in a glorious one-week period.

  7. January 31, 2012 1:56 pm

    Strange enough, I’m reading books set in the cold regions of the earth, Norway, for example, while it is wintertime here. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I’m thinking it’s worse other places than it is here where I am (in northcentral Pennsylvania). As for Wallace Stevens, he is one of my favorite poets any time of the year.

    • February 1, 2012 8:37 am

      Always glad to meet another Stevens lover! Occasionally I do like to read a book set in a cold place when it’s winter where I am. I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow that way, and liked it better than I think I would have otherwise. This winter I read A Reliable Wife, and the parts about the cold struck me more than they would have another time of year. Of course, now I’m ready for my annual viewing of the movie Body Heat!

  8. January 31, 2012 5:09 pm

    Thank you for reminding me of this poem–I haven’t read it since grad school. I love your thoughts about it, too, and the fantasy world map is awesome!

    • February 1, 2012 8:38 am

      Glad you liked both. I have some quarrels with the fantasy map (where’s Fillory? maybe it was too hard to super-impose it on Narnia?), but thought it was amusing.

  9. January 31, 2012 10:13 pm

    Stevens always amazes me by packing an entire memoir into a few short lines. He writes the densest (in the best sense) poetry I know. And I love the balance of general and specific here — Ramon Fernandez!

    • February 1, 2012 8:40 am

      That is what I love about Stevens, too. Ramon Fernandez is funny–I think he’s frustrated generations of students, but he’s not in there for that, he’s in there to balance all the abstraction. I picture him with a moustache.

  10. February 2, 2012 2:15 pm

    beautiful, I love how the voice of the sea comes through. kaye—the road goes ever ever on

  11. February 2, 2012 5:15 pm

    yes–and that it sounds like the voice of the sea, when really it’s her voice!

  12. February 4, 2012 2:57 pm

    Thank for sharing this poem, I really love it. This is my favorite part: 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.

    I also think your discussion of the poem is spot-on. Reading about warmth and the ocean is just what I need on this chilly morning. Thank you for participating!

    • February 6, 2012 8:30 am

      That is one of my favorite parts, too. I like the “body wholly body” because it makes me think of Yeats (“a tattered coat upon a stick”) and because it suggests, at least to me, that the waves make the speaker think of a small child learning to wave “bye-bye” and all the poignancy that can have for an adult, leaving.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: