The Idea of Order at Key West
by Wallace Stevens
Analysis: Form and Meter
Stevens wrote "The Idea of Order at Key West" in blank verse (meaning unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter). Quite a few of the lines don't follow strict iambic pentameter, but we'll talk more about that a little later.
We know, we know. There are some lines that rhyme and we just said the lines should be unrhymed. We'll get to that, too. Keep your shirts on. Please. Shmoop just isn't that kind of site.
The Story of Blank
Blank verse is perhaps the most common form in English language poetry. Earliest examples date back to the mid-sexteenth century, and some of the biggest names in literature have used it. Shakespeare, for example, used a great deal of blank verse in his plays. (Quentin Tarantino: eh, not so much.)
Why Wallace Went Blank
Stevens used blank verse despite the fact that many poets of his day were following the free verse trend.
Blank verse seems like a good choice for this one, since Stevens is dealing with some pretty big, pretty classic ideas: art, inspiration, the relationship between our internal and external worlds.
Form and meter have as much to do with how we respond to a poem as the content does. For example, if "The Idea of Order…" were written in the form of a limerick, it would likely lose some of its punch: There once was a singer from Spain, / Who sung on the beach a refrain… Get the idea? We hope so. We really don't want to finish this limerick.
The Hidden Truth Behind Wallace's Deviations
While some of the lines in the poem follow strict iambic pentameter, others do not. What does this tell us? Was Stevens not so good at the whole meter and counting thing? Was he lazy? Answers: no and no. Stevens deviates from the iambic pentameter pattern for auditory effect and to highlight specific content elements in the poem. Here are a couple examples:
Lines 1 and 2 follow the blank verse pattern perfectly:
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
But line 3 breaks the pattern. In fact, the iambs (two-syllable combinations of unstressed and stressed syllables, as in "allow") are inverted and turned into trochees (which are basically reverse iambs, where the syllables are stressed, then unstressed, as in "pancake").
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
What's up with that? Well, let's take a closer look at the content of line 3. Stevens is talking about a body that is only body. It is missing something essential, something internal, like a soul or a mind (for an example from the pop music world, just go ahead and Google "Milli Vanilli"). By switching from iambs to trochees, we hear and feel a kind of change and we feel the absence of the rhythm that Stevens established with the first two lines' strict iambic pentameter. We feel and hear the absence of the missing elements. Pretty smooth, right? Yeah, Wallace is wicked good at poetry.
A Variety of Variations
We can see Stevens using form and meter variations in other places too. Take a look at lines 33 and 34:
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
In strict blank verse, each line should have five iambic feet, of five pairs of iambs. But line 33 has 2 feet and line 34 has 3. Stevens has basically broken a complete line of iambic pentameter into 2 incomplete lines. What gives?
This deviation certainly draws attention, this time visually rather than auditorily (HEY! Shmoop saw that. Your eyes closed right there. Grab another Coke Zero and dig deeper!). It is also significant in terms of content. Stanza 4 is exploring the component parts of the scene and trying to work out how they are "organized." The breaking up of the line clarifies these elements visually: the sky and sea are on one level and she, "her voice," on the next. It's a pivotal point in the poem and the significance is given emphasis as a result of this structural variation.