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Okay team, fasten those seatbelts. "The Idea of Order at Key West" could be a bumpy ride. Despite the fact that Key West is in the title, this poem has less to do with sunning yourself on a beautiful Florida beach and more to do with tying your brain in knots (though still on a beautiful Florida beach). That said, this is arguably one of the most significant poems written in the twentieth century. Masterful use of structure? Check. Complexity and timelessness of content? Check. Ability to make teachers flush with excitement and envy and at the same time send students into fits of anxiety and rage? DOUBLE check. For those willing to put in a little (okay, a lot) of time and effort, the poem has a great deal to offer.
And it's all thanks to one man. Poet Wallace Stevens was born in 1879 in Pennsylvania, went to Harvard, studied with some really smart people, and became one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Ah, the life of a poet: sitting around all day under a tree, maybe some bongos or a guitar, living each day from experience to experience—no obligations except your commitment to your art. Well, think again. Wallace wasn't your typical poet. He had a day job at an insurance company. He wore suits for cryin' out loud!
That didn't stop him from coming up with some of the most famous poetry ever written, though. In "The Idea of Order at Key West," Stevens explores some of his favorite themes: art, creativity, imagination and reality—big ideas from one of the big guns of the poetry world. Wallace isn't going to make it easy on you, but he isn't totally heartless. The basic narrative of the poem is that the speaker and his friend listen to a woman singing on a beach in Key West. What could be easier than that? To answer that question, Shmoopers, dive on in!
You know how when you have your headphones on, and your favorite song comes on, and suddenly everything seems more beautiful, more dramatic, or maybe even more frightening or sad, than they had a moment before? The trees are the same trees, the empty playground is the same empty playground, the hills in the distance are the same, but everything seems to have taken on new significance—like a moment from a movie, but it's your life. You may have seen that empty playground thousands of times before, but now it seems full of meaning and emotion. Have you ever wondered why that happens? If you have, this is the poem for you.
In "The Idea of Order at Key West," Wallace Stevens explores, among other things, the crossover between imagination and reality and how they are intertwined. He also explores how art can affect this relationship between imagination and reality. That song on the radio (yes, music counts as art) has changed the way you perceive reality—the way you see and experience the world. Stevens suggests that art has the power to permanently alter the way we see the world around us—pretty powerful stuff, this art.
So this poem is a great way to explore that kind of moment in more depth—much more depth. Still, cards on the table: studying this poem is going to be a difficult, frustrating experience. But there is a payoff: if you put in the time and effort necessary to get a handle on this one, you will likely start seeing connections between the content of this poem and elements of your daily life. Ultimately, this poem could, for a few of you who are truly open to it, change the way you see and experience the world around you and actually alter your notion of reality. This totally sounds like the beginning of The Matrix, right?
Can't Get Enough of "The Idea of Order at Key West"?
Here is a link to some smart people talking about the poem. If you click this, you truly are headed off the deep end.
The World According to Wallace
Check out these quotes from Stevens. He has something to say about, well, everything.
This is a great tribute site (of sorts) to Stevens, called "Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens."
At Long Last: Wallace-Vision
This one-hour video includes footage of Stevens' hometown, as well as interviews with neighbors and coworkers. VH1's Behind the Music it ain't, but it is an interesting look at Stevens from different perspectives.
A Snippet of Order
Here's a scenic video, starring just part of the poem.
Wallace-Inspired Tunes (Top 40, it's not.)
"The Idea of Order at Key West" was the inspiration for this piece by American composer Robert Erickson. Do you think Wallace would have liked it? We think it's hard to dance to.
The Man Himself
Before you listen, try reading the poem aloud yourself. Maybe you can give Wallace a run for his money! Or maybe not.
Here's the most iconic image of the man.
...And Much, Much More!
You asked for it. Click the link to see Wallace as a boy, young man, old man, with his wife, with his daughter, with his house—you get the picture. (See what we did there?)
Hey! Shmoop Isn't the Only One that Likes this Poem.
Art critic Peter Schjeldahl seems to really dig this poem.
Wallace on Wallace
This 1954 article from The New York Times gives a glimpse into Wallace the man—including a bit about his eating habits. Apparently, he rarely ate lunch. Not us. The only way we miss lunch is if we eat brunch—twice!
That's All He Wrote…
Take a look at Wallace Stevens' obituary from The New York Times.
Now That You've Conquered "The Idea of Order at Key West"…
Hey! Great news! Stevens wrote a whole book of these really difficult poems! It's called—wait for it—Ideas of Order. While this particular book is out of print and will run you about $195, you can check out some Stevens collections here.
Thirteen Ways… To Make a Low-Buget Movie
It looks like some folks made a $4000 homage to one of Stevens' most famous poems, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."