The Idea of Order at Key West
by Wallace Stevens
"She" a.k.a. The Singer
Our musical friend by the shore is a key element in the poem and functions as an extended metaphor for the artist/poet. The singer is the source of the song, just as the artist is the source of the painting, or the poet is the source of the poem. But the question that Stevens presents in the poem goes deeper than this fairly direct interpretation of the metaphor. (You kind of saw that coming, didn't you?)
The singer also represents imagination—the ability to create new ideas, images, and concepts not necessarily present in the external, natural world—and our individual perceptions of reality. Her song, her art, is a projection of her version of reality. She is singing (expressing through her art) the sea, "word for word." And yet, what she sings does not sound like the "veritable ocean." Still, the sea loses whatever identity it has and becomes part of her song (her art).
To sum up then: the singer is the "single artificer" of her world. The artist is creating, in a sense, what she is inspired by. As before, we know this is a little chicken or the egg. But what can we say? Wallace is deep.
- Lines 1-7: "She" is the first word of the poem and "sang" is the second, so we know right away that these elements are going to be significant. "She" is introduced as a singer, someone creating something. It is important to note that Stevens does not say the she sang the sea, or like the sea, or about the sea. She sang "beyond" the sea. What she sang was something more, or other, than the sea itself. And not just the sea, the very essence of the sea itself, the spirit ("genius") of the sea.
- Line 8: If we are reading "She" as an extended metaphor for the poet-artist, than this line takes on even more significance. She is not a mask. The artist, the poet is not hiding or concealing anything in their work. The artist is not presenting a fiction but rather the truth, the reality, their reality. This connects nicely with Steven's idea of reality and perception.
- Lines 10-14: The artist is recording what they hear, see, smell, taste, touch—recording what they experience exactly (word for word). But what they create becomes something "other." It is the product of the artist (in this case the song) that we experience.
- Lines 15-20: The artist is the maker of the art. Duh. But the inspiration, the sea, has become insignificant, nothing more than a place she is walking while she sings. What gives? Earlier Stevens told us that she was singing exactly what she heard and recording it word for word. But the inspiration is filtered through the artist and becomes something else entirely, so that the connection to the inspiration is no longer, necessarily, significant. She, the artist, has turned the sea into something entirely "of" herself.
- Lines 36-43: The artist captures the emotion of the inspiration, the "solitude." But she does more than record the world, she creates it. She is "the maker." Stevens portrays the poet-artist as almost god-like, with the power to create the world itself. Is Wallace tooting his own horn a bit here? Sure, but isn't there a little diva in every artist?