© 2015 . All rights reserved.

Wallace Stevens reads The Idea of Order at Key West

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard.
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
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.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens


  1. I think he forces the metre in a few lines with usually one syllable too many, the general idea and theme is fine ( is he still around? he may like some constructive criticism) Thus– She sang beyond the genius of sea. rather than the somewhat forced/cramped/clumsy She sang beyond the genius of the sea. – for she was maker of the song she sang– rather than — for she was the maker of the song she sang. THE FOLLOWING LINE WOULD NEED TO BE CHANGED. But that would be easy and the poem would flow so much more satisfactorily to my poor ear.
    — That was her song for she was the maker. Then we —
    Better as — That was her song, she was its maker. We–
    there are a few other lines if you do the syllable count you spot the clunkyness when there are more than 10.

    • No, Wallace Stevens is definitely not still around 🙂 He was long gone already when I studied him in 1965. The poem we examined then pertained to the Brooklyn Bridge when it was something topical and new. My teacher laughed at that poem being included in an anthology endorsed by the New York Chamber of Commerce. Enjoy his patter, the message seemed to be, but don’t be taken in. His poems are filled with interesting, subversive avenues that may lead you into a deeper, darker understanding of yourself and society. Like a shell game, which any New Yorker knows better than to be taken in by.

Leave a Reply