Sound in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

Image courtesy of Justin Henry under licence https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

In “The Idea of Order at Key West,” there are several pertinent examples of sound pattern techniques being used to reinforce meaning. For instance, there are a lot of w and s sounds in this poem, tying in with the soft, whispery sound and feel of wind, water, sky, and sea—which are some of the most essential components of the imagery of the poem.

Stevens also utilizes alliteration frequently in this poem to contribute to the meaning. For example, in the lines “bronze shadows heaped / On high horizons” (lines 31-32) the h’s are heaped one on top of the other, mimicking the way the bronze shadows are heaped on the horizons. Thus, Stevens is painting an image that is simultaneously supported by the sounds created by the lines.

Rhyme is also helpful in adding meaning in this poem. In the second stanza, Stevens writes that “The song and water were not medleyed sound” (line 9) and then he spends the rest of the stanza actually creating this “un-medleyed sound” by emphasizing the steady iambic pentameter of the lines. He creates this effect by using a series of rhyming words—heard, word (twice), stirred, heard (again)—at the ends of the lines to draw the reader’s attention to the rhythm of the meter. Many readers adjusted their reading during these lines, placing a greater emphasis on meter here than they did elsewhere in the poem.

Finally, repetition is a notable sound pattern technique. Certain words (sky, sea, voice, water, sing/sang/song, and wind) are repeated several times each throughout the poem. On a content level, these words are key components of the poem, so it is appropriate that they are recycled throughout. This repetition brings these words to the forefront of the reader’s mind, making them impossible not to notice.

However, I’d like to take the repetition one step deeper in meaning. I believe that by continually bringing up these words and the images they evoke, Stevens invites us to visit and revisit them as a way of attempting to make sense of these elements—in much the same way that the singer in the poem attempts to bring order to these same elements through her song. Many of Stevens’ poems have this meditative quality and, in fact, Stevens himself was known to use this process in his actual writing, attempting to draw closer to the reality of the world by examining it over and over through his poems. He seems to be offering the reader this same experience in this poem.

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