Meaning in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

Image courtesy of Justin Henry under licence

In a letter to Ronald Lane Latimar, composed in 1935, Stevens writes: “It may be that every man introduces his own order into the life about him” (293). “The Idea of Order at Key West” is one of Stevens’ most successful representations of this philosophic idea. In the poem, a woman walks along the shore beside the sea, singing. She interacts with the natural elements around her through her song, creating them, shaping them: “It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing…. And when she sang, the sea, / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song” (lines 34-35, 38-40). In the end of the poem, the speaker addresses another man standing with him on the beach, watching the woman sing. After the singing has ended, the speaker acknowledges that he’s gained a new perspective on the world around him; he suddenly sees order—or at least, the possibility of order—in the seascape.

Imagination was clearly a concept that intrigued Stevens. In Doyle’s collection of essays, Yvor Winters discusses Stevens’ theory on the imagination: “Briefly, Stevens believed that we live in a nominalistic universe made up of unrelated and inscrutable particulars, and that the only order possible in such a universe is that created by the poetic imagination” (249-50). This poem clearly addresses the interdependence of the imagination and reality, and the role of human creation in shaping that reality.


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