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The Idea of Order at Key West

The Idea of Order at Key West

by Wallace Stevens

The Idea of Order at Key West Summary

Quick, name a few things about poetry that make you, well, hate it. The list likely includes, but is by no means limited to: obscure references, difficult vocabulary, topics that are seemingly devoid of any relevance to your life, and as a whole, mind-bendingly difficult to understand.

Well, we're going to be honest here. Wallace Steven's poem, "The Idea of Order at Key West," would appear to have all these negative elements and more. This is a tough one on just about every level. Even the experts have troubled over this one. Wait! Stop! You were about to click away from Shmoop and go back to reading that blog about extreme eating. Don't do it! Stick with Shmoop. We'll walk you through it. Trust us.

The title and first stanza give us some pretty specific information that will be helpful to keep in mind once Stevens pulls the training wheels off in the subsequent stanzas. We are given a setting, Key West, which says sun and surf. We are given a "she" who is singing on the beach. And we have a speaker, who is observing the "she" and listening to the song (it all sounds pretty good so far, right?).

As the poem progresses, we see that the sea is actually much more than merely the poem's setting. And the "she" represents much more than a lone singer. The sea functions almost like another character in the poem to which the "she" is constantly set in juxtaposition.

In "The Idea of Order…" Stevens asks us to consider this: is the sea merely inspiration for her song, or is it her song that is giving new meaning, significance, life to the sea? Is it actually her imagination, her internal world, that is altering (ordering) the speaker's perception of the external reality of the Key West seashore? The poem becomes a kind of beautiful, haunting investigation of imagination, perception of reality, art, and creativity.

(A word of warning: Stevens can bring it in the vocabulary department, so you might want to pack a dictionary before setting off.)

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