Since poetry and desire cannot be separated for Stevens, his poems about desire are almost always also about poetry or the power of poetry. Like Sappho, Shakespeare, Goethe, Wordsworth and many other great writers before him, Stevens tries to get at the emotional element of poetry by linking it with music and song. People tend to connect songs and music with emotions and Stevens knows this. He also knows that poetry was originally read or sung to musical accompaniment, so he remains aware of the lyric poem's grounding in music. Stevens likes to bridge poetry and song because he sees this fusion as a kind of symbol for bridging human desire with human expression. Certainly in his first book, Harmonium, and in his later books, like The Auroras of Autumn and The Rock, the poems pulse with the power and urgency of desire. But, in the early 1930s, as Stevens is writing the poems that would make up Ideas of Order, he seems to grow somewhat skeptical of poetry's ability to embody or fully represent desire.In "Peter Quince at the Clavier," a poem from Harmonium, Stevens writes that music means "desiring you," but in a different poem fourteen years later, he writes that "the waltz / Is no longer a mode of desire." Given the fact that Stevens likes to think of music as a metaphor for poetry, one might believe that Stevens feels his poetry has lost some spunk, that it cannot continue to carry the energy of human desire and emotion. However, Stevens does make a distinction between the waltz and music itself. Perhaps it is the "old music" (as he says) that cannot adequately express desire. Perhaps what Stevens is saying is that a new music is needed, a new poetry that connects human desire with actual humans. That is, he wants to write a poetry that puts human beings back in touch with their desire through language. This desire for connection seems to be a powerful theme at work in "The Idea of Order at Key West."
In his poem, "Ghosts As Cocoons," Stevens writes, "Where is sun and music and highest heaven's lust, / For which more than any words cries deeplier?" The cry is the vocalization of internal desire--the internal made external. Likewise, the new music is that which takes the internal movements of the old and transforms them into an inclusive, communal vision of the new. For Stevens, the great project of poetry is to transform private vision (the vision of the poet) into a public vision (the vision of his readers and the world around him). This is exactly what the female singer accomplishes in "The Idea of Order at Key West" and why this poem serves as a nice metaphor for his work as a whole. He wants his poetry to have the same effect on his readers that the woman's song has on the speaker of the poem.
Yet, the speaker remains separate from the shadowy singer in "The Idea of Order at Key West," and some reasons why that is might provide some insight into the transformation the speaker goes through in the poem. The gay waltz in the poem mentioned above goes unnamed. It could be any waltz, played anywhere. But "Idea of Order" is firmly located along the shores of Florida. This is important because the opening poem in Ideas of Order is not a welcoming but a farewell. Oddly enough, the first poem is entitled "Farewell to Florida." While few critics have noted the relationship of the two poems, there remains both explicitly and implicitly a fundamental affinity between them. The female singer in "The Idea of Order" exists as a detached, solitary figure. In the poem, she rather matter-of-factly distances herself from the person who is narrating the events. Such is the case in "Farewell to Florida," where the poet also remains distant from the female presence. But oddly enough for Stevens, opposites attract. The idea of distance makes the woman appealing. It is her detachment that seduces Stevens because it gives him perspective.
Again, desire and seduction remain key themes for Stevens because of his own desire for his poems to seduce his readers. But he knows that to do this, his poems must be attractive on an emotional level. People must be able to feel his poems. But, like most men of Stevens' era, he is uncomfortable with intimate emotions; thus his poetry is a constant struggle between the intellect and emotion. This conflict is the subject of "Farewell to Florida." The text of "Farewell to Florida" tells of a relieved Stevens who longs to return to his ordered northern (male) state of mind, but the subtext reveals something entirely different:
From my North of cold whistled in a sepulchral South,
Her South of pine and coral and coraline sea,
Her home, not mine, in the ever-freshened Keys,
Her days, her oceanic nights, calling
Often Stevens associates the muse (the Greek goddesses who were in charge of inspiring poets and composers) with the tropics of Florida. Stevens is also seduced in "The Idea of Order at Key West" but not by the lushness of the woman, rather by her song. In both instances, Stevens' desire takes on a sort of rage, the likes of which readers do not find in Harmonium. The famous literary critic Harold Bloom, in his book Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, claims that this "is so erotic a stanza that the reader needs to keep reminding himself that this Florida, as a state of mind, is a trope of pathos, a synecdoche for desire and not desire itself." True indeed, the passage is beautiful and painful. Florida and what Florida might represent to Stevens (lushness, the feminine, emotion, poetry) is an object of desire.
Because he cannot inhabit this intense landscape, he flees to the north, to the world of the snow man, the world of "the violent mind." But he is mistaken to think he can leave the muse or what Jacqueline Vaught Brogan has called his "feminine self" behind. For Stevens, Florida becomes a muse in and of itself because the South, like the muse and desire, is alive, cyclical, pungent, and ebbing. And because Stevens wants this for his poetry, the manifestation of Florida, the singing female, returns like Odysseus to the poetic ground of her making in Stevens' wonderful poem "The Idea of Order at Key West."
Not only does the singing female return, but she does so in an enhanced capacity. Of the moving first stanza, the most important lines are the first, "She sang beyond the genius of the sea," and the last two, "That was not ours although we understood, / Inhuman, of the veritable ocean." The two most important words are "beyond" and "inhuman." Indeed, taken together, the two words suggest a certain ekstasis, a virtual transcendence beyond the human realm. The song and singer are not "masks," nor are they anything but themselves; however, Stevens is only able to comprehend both in terms of otherness. They are not him. They are not male or northern. They are separate.
While Stevens and the singer overtly maintain a remoteness, readers should not miss the fact that Stevens does understand her. He hears what she is singing. He understands her because she is forming ideas into language. Yet Stevens also understands that he cannot translate her song into purely linguistic or human codes. What she is singing is not only beyond understanding, it also reaches beyond language: "But it was more than that, / More even than her voice, and ours, among / The meaningless plungings of water and the wind." But just as it seems like the poem is going to drift off into the ocean, Stevens brings it back to earth in the next two stanzas. What makes this an amazing poem is his ability to represent inhuman moments in human terms. Or better put, he uses language to express that which is beyond language. Like the singer's song, his poem helps transform the world. Stevens helps readers fulfill their own desires to see a richer, fuller world.
The idea that the poet is a kind of facilitator is fairly new for Stevens in the 1930s. Many people think that "The Idea of Order at Key West" marks a turning point for him, that it signals a shift from the old music of Harmonium to the new, more inclusive music of Ideas of Order. For instance, in Stevens' often quoted poem, "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon," a major poem in Harmonium, Hoon's chant utterly transforms the external landscape, but in "The Idea of Order at Key West," the Floridian landscape goes unchanged. It remains in disorder. The singer does not alter the external world the way Hoon does. The world goes on. Stevens realizes this and accepts it. The singer does not try to order the world. She simply sings. Neither does the listener try to order the world. He merely listens and allows the song to do the transforming. This is the new Stevens, and this the new song. The Stevens of Harmonium would have ended the poem after the fifth stanza, just a few more lines after the above quote, but the Stevens of 1934 adds two, somewhat puzzling stanzas, the most notable aspect of which shows Stevens turning not inward but outward:
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,
The temptation is to remain, like the woman and like Hoon, in solitude, but Stevens and his companion do not turn away toward the sea (where order may be found) but toward the town, toward civilization, toward humanity. Of course the criticism can be made that a simple turn of the body is hardly an affirmative social avowal--why couldn't Stevens have simply said "I share this with all of you?" But Stevens works subtly. His only overt social poem, "Owl's Clover," is considered by most a failure. In Stevens, gesture can be everything. While the act of singing is an act of individual will, turning that will back toward a shared experience and not inward is what delineates this poem from "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon," and other similar Harmonium poems. Stevens' rage in this final stanza is the rage for the "tortured words" and the "vital words" that speak concurrently for the past, present, and future. Furthermore, it is the "sibylline presence," the female singer who returns as the muse bearing the word on her voice. Through the act of poetry, Stevens is able to translate her voice and his desire into a collective voice, one that speaks and sings of the inhuman ("ghostlier demarcations") and the human ("ourselves and our origins").
Music continues to serve as an important motif for Stevens in Ideas of Order because music and poetry elicit a similar affectivity. Music for Stevens is essentially internal, as is poetry. Readers may hear the external notes of music, but they feel the traces the music leaves in their ears. The same goes for poetry. Music is something that is ultimately "taken in" and released over and over in the mind. The female singer in "The Idea of Order at Key West" is not just a singer but a composer both in the musical sense and in the etymological sense (from the Latin posere, "to place or to lie down with"). Stevens associates music with both emotion and motion, and he associates all three with poetry and with the harmonies and cacophonies of human desire. So in "The Idea of Order at Key West," Stevens actually says hello to the feminine presence that he originally said farewell to in "Farewell to Florida," and in so doing, he says hello to his feminine self. It is that self, his internal, emotive self, that allows him to link poem and song in "The Idea of Order at Key West," offering readers a vision of a world in which internal and external also begin to harmonize, fulfilling both his and others' desires.
Credits: Rader, Dean. "Critical Essay on 'The Idea of Order at Key West'."