“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.”1
Read the entire poem here.
In Wallace Steven’s “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the speaker and his companion encounter a woman singing as they walk near the water on Key West. Her voice so hypnotizes them that it seems to be creating the world in which she and they exist. When the song ends, they find themselves left in a world where the human conceived idea of order confronts them and contrasts with the experience of listening to the song as it interacted with the sea.
The small island of Key West, which is only about four square miles of land sitting just above the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to its north and the Atlantic Ocean to its south, has earned a unique literary reputation. Key West’s most famous literary figure is Ernest Hemingway, but the island also enjoyed regular visits from Tennessee Williams and several other writers including Wallace Stevens. “The Idea of Order at Key West” takes its imagery from one of his visits.
1Stevens, Wallace. “The Idea of Order at Key West.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1990. 128-30. Print.
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