1. Word Choice
When we read a word on the page, other words that are related semantically (in meaning) or phonologically (in sound) to the target word are simultaneously “activated.” According to MacMahon, “when activation in one word reaches a significant level, selection is triggered for that word. Occasionally, due to raised resting levels of activation, the wrong word may accumulate more activation than the target word—this is how we make word selection mistakes” (107). This phenomenon explains some of the errors readers made in word choice—replacing one word for another or misreading an unfamiliar word. Based on what word(s) they expected to see in a given context, the wrong word was occasionally triggered, resulting in a reading error.
For example, in “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” eight readers replaced “round” in line 8 with “around,” which was triggered—based on their expectations—more than the actual target word. This same incident occurred with the word “medleyed” in line 9 of “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Three readers substituted the word “melodied” for “medleyed,” probably since there had been two mentions of singing already in the poem, and “melody” has a stronger association with singing than “medley” does. Thus, “melodied” received more activation than the target word.
There were also situations in which readers struggled with words due to the fact that they weren’t real (or, at least, not at all common) words. Stevens definitely took liberties with his word choice. Two examples of this occurrence are the words “intensest” (“Final Soliloquy” line 4), over which many readers stumbled, and “artificer” (“Key West” line 37), which was pronounced all of the following ways: “ARtificer,” “arTIFicer,” “artiFYEcer,” and “ARtifisher.”
2. Grammar and Syntax
In many cases, the syntax (or lack thereof) in Stevens’ poems can mislead a reader. For example, consider the first two lines of “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”: “Light the first light of evening, as in a room / In which we rest” (lines 1-2) This first line strikes the reader as a mistake because we assume that the second occurrence of “light” is an appositive, which would mean that the line is missing a comma: “Light, the first light of evening, as in a room…” Or perhaps it should be set off with em dashes: “Light—the first light of evening—as in a room…” With neither of these punctuations marks present, however, we are forced to reexamine the line and the first “light” becomes a verb, a command to “light the first light of evening.” This usage is unexpected, and several readers read the line as though it was set off with commas or em dashes.
Again in “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” most readers seemed unsure what to do with the following lines: “A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous. / Within its vital boundary in the mind. / We say God and the imagination are one…” (lines 12-4). Specifically, as a sentence fragment, line 13 poses a problem; many readers felt the need to attach it either to the previous line, or as an introductory clause to the following line, both of which would slightly alter the meaning of these lines. The discrepancy was significant—six readers in total read the line not as it is written (a sentence fragment) but as part of either line 12 or line 14.
In “Infanta Marina,” four readers either omitted words or stumbled over line 3 of the poem: “She made of the motions of her wrist.” This could have been due to the fact that they expected the line to be “She made the motions of her wrist…” Indeed, the “of” construction of the poem is a bit convoluted. Surely “She made the grandiose gestures of her thought out of the motions of her wrist” would be clearer. But this is not nearly as eloquent, and apparently the idea of possession and the subordination of one element to another takes precedence over syntax in Stevens’ mind.
Finally, the syntax of the following lines of “The Idea of Order at Key West” seemed to mislead some of the readers: “The water never formed to mind or voice / Like a body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves” (lines 2-4). What is a “body wholly body”? Like the first example from “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” the line feels as though it is lacking a comma (i.e. “Like a body, wholly body, fluttering…”). Five readers took it upon themselves to add a pause here—indicating a comma—to make the line seem more grammatically correct.
3. Line Breaks
Occasionally, the way a sentence is broken up across the lines of a poem can confuse the structure of the sentence, causing problems for readers. Such is the case in “The Idea of Order at Key West”: “Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew / It was the spirit that we sought and knew / That we should ask this often as she sang” (lines 18-20). The two occurrences of “knew” falling one after the other at the ends of lines tripped up several readers. Many seemed to be under the impression that the second “knew” refers to the spirit (i.e. “It was the spirit that we sought and knew”), rather than the beginning of a new clause (i.e. “knew that we should ask this often as she sang”). Therefore, nine readers (nearly half) added a pause after line 19, indicating a period. They would then reach line 20 and realize their mistake, but were left with no choice but to finish reading “That we should ask this often as she sang” as a sentence fragment.
The meter of a poem dictates the rhythm with which it is read. Lanier writes that “words have become so associated with their rhythms as to suggest them when written or printed and thus to become a system of notation for rhythm” (117). Lanier is referring to the meter of a poem, which is created with series of stressed and unstressed syllables. Nearly all form poems employ a specific meter, but some poets place more emphasis on the meter of their poems than others. Regardless, the meter of a poem heavily impacts readers, and changes to the meter of a poem can disturb the rhythm and occasionally cause problems.
For example, consider the line “Knew that there was never a world for her” (line 42) from “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Three readers changed the line to “Knew that there never was a world for her” possibly because that line would maintain the iambic rhythm set up in the rest of the poem. As it stands, the line forces a couple of anapestic feet into the middle of the line, which—understandably—strikes the reader as something to be avoided. This is a situation in which the meter works against the reader, and perhaps against the poet’s intentions.
Another place to take note of meter in “The Idea of Order at Key West” occurs in the second stanza. The rhyme pattern at the end of lines 10-12, and 14 emphasizes the meter in a way that is unusual, not just in this particular poem, but in Stevens’ poetry overall. “The Idea of Order at Key West” is written in iambic pentameter, but there are so many variations and substitutions throughout that it goes somewhat unnoticed. The rhyming words in stanza two, however, draw the reader’s attention to the meter and it becomes a predominant feature of the poem. This sudden awareness of the meter led many readers to emphasize the iambs by taking a longer pause after the line ending in “stirred” than they would have normally (considering that the line is not end-stopped).
5. Sound Patterns
Finally, I would like to discuss a few sound patterns that may have caused readers to make errors in their readings. Certain sound techniques create patterns which the reader expects will continue—when they are unexpectedly discontinued (especially subtly) many readers continue the pattern by mistake. For example, in line 13 of “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The grinding water and the gasping wind” becomes “The grinding water and the grasping wind” because of the expectation that the gr sound will repeat after the second g.
Two other small examples of this occur near the end of this poem. “The maker’s rage to order words of sea” (line 53) becomes “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea” because almost every mention of the sea prior to that in the poem is “the sea,” which creates a precedent, causing the reader to imagine that pattern even where it doesn’t exist. Likewise, “And of ourselves and our origins” (line 55) becomes “And of ourselves and of our origins” because of the “of” construction which is set up throughout the rest of the poem. This is especially true of such a long poem; since the reader has been following the pattern for so long, they expect that it will continue.