Sunday, August 26, 2018

Wallace Stevens

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, “The Idea of Order at Key West” from Collected Poems. Copyright 1923, 1951, 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)

Gyorgyi Voros
Stevens's sense of the American experience of the Nature / culture relation was that modern awareness of Nature--whether Nature be manifest as wilderness, as the human body, or as the human unconscious--had diminished dangerously. Stevens complained, "The material world, for all the assurances of the eye, has become immaterial. It has become an image in the mind." Human preconception had so blunted the human experience of and relation to nonhuman Nature, upon which the human rested, that indeed nothing but empty anthropocentric image remained. Stevens knew that a cancerous humanism diminishes human experience. "The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real," he asserted.
This interdependence of imagination and reality is, of course, the subject of "The Idea of Order at Key West." The poem's speaker, walking on the shore, listening to the singer, posing questions and propositions about the nature of art to his companion, posits a series of antinomies which can be reframed as usefully within the categories of Nature and culture and human and nonhuman as they can within reality and imagination. The speaker pits mind against Nature’s "body wholly body," singer's song against the "meaningless plungings of water and the wind," the glassy lights of the town against the darkness of the sea, and language against the "words of the sea." While he asserts the mutual influences between sea and song, he emphasizes an essential discontinuity between them and averts any suggestion of an easy synthesis: "The song and water were not medleyed sound / Even if what she sang was what she heard," he cautions and stresses that "it was she and not the sea we heard."
The poem's central question asks, "Whose spirit is this?" That is, what interface exists between human and Nature in song, the poem's metonym for art? The speaker has already shown that the singer's song fails as direct translation of the sea's "constant cry," nor can song effect a seamless identification between singer and natural elements. Is it then a production of individual vision against the spectacular stage set of Nature? After all, "she was the maker of the song she sang. /... [the] sea / Was merely a place by which she walked to sing."
The poem's final third is customarily read as an avowal of the romantic doctrine of the mind's ultimate superiority over Nature: after all, "It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing" and the aftermath of her song that answers to the human "rage for order." In the resounding silence that follows the song, the lights of the fishing boats
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Indeed, Helen Vendler's reading of this poem places it within the Wordsworthian mind / Nature dichotomy and reads it as asserting the romantics' sense of "the power of poetry over nature." Similarly, Harold Bloom writes that the poem "remains equivocal and perhaps impossible to interpret" because it simultaneously "affirms a transcendental poetic spirit yet cannot locate it, and the poem also remains uneasily wary about the veritable ocean, which will rise up against Stevens yet again."
Placing this poem too squarely within the romantic framework of mind over Nature, however, discounts the poem's true dynamic, which does not rest solely on the dichotomy between singer and song. The two listeners themselves engage in creation (song making) by attending to sea and singer. The stimuli around the speaker--singer, song, companion, "bronze shadows heaped / On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres / Of sky and sea," night descending, lights emerging--engender in him a flow of propositions, questions, and highly charged perceptual experiences. Rather than depicting the power of poetry over Nature, the poem depicts the power of the sum of perceptual experiences created by human and nonhuman components in the speaker, whose main role in the poem may be summarized as that of creative listener. . . .The night deepens after the song has ended; the resounding silence, as it were, heightens the effects of song and what might be regarded as the visual analogues to song, the lights, boats, town, and other human productions that order and "portion out" the natural scene. This difference--the juxtaposition and interface between before and after--is more significant than any element of the experience. It is finally the speaker, not the singer or the song, who effects the enchantment of the night.
From Notations of the Wild: Ecology in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. University of Iowa Press.