The Idea of Order at Key West

The Idea of Order at Key West Study Guide

"The Idea of Order at Key West" is a philosophical poem about the creative powers of the human mind, by American modernist Wallace Stevens. It is the title poem and most famous work from Stevens' second poetry collection, Ideas of Order, published in 1934 as the long-awaited follow-up to his entry into the literary scene a little over a decade earlier. The speaker of "The Idea of Order at Key West" narrates his experience listening to a woman singing on the Florida beach. The song prompts a deep reflection on what it means to be a singer—or poet, or an artist of any kind—and how art influences the way we "order" the world in our minds.

Key West was a vacation destination for Stevens and several of his contemporaries, such as Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Bishop, who sought inspiration in its tropical setting. In this poem, Stevens uses the image of a woman facing the sea as a symbolic encounter between humanity and nature. The poem's speaker ponders to what extent the sea serves as the inspiration or source for the woman's song, and to what extent artists are capable of creating, redefining, or mastering the natural world around themselves.

By most interpretations, the poem becomes a powerful testament to artists as independent creators with the power to transform and enliven how their audiences see the world. This drama plays out inside the narrator / onlooker's mind: after wrestling with questions over how the woman's song is related to the sea, the speaker has a transcendent experience, as a result of hearing the singing, in which the harbor and town suddenly appear more vibrant and more beautifully ordered before his eyes.