Saturday, September 14, 2019

Demarcations of the Tragic: The Disappearing Referent in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

In memoriam Richard Macksey, who introduced me to this poet, this poem and this form of literary analysis, explication de texte.

             The problematic relationship between what is, broadly speaking, and how it is expressed poetically is a theme probably as old as the first interpretation of a work of art. Plato considered poetry “a dim adumbration in comparison with reality,”[1] an inferior imitation of what he considered eternal ideas and forms. Aristotle’s Poetics, on the other hand, holds that art better represents universal truths than ordinary reality, because it gives shape to the formless and structures it into a whole, “present all at once in contemplation.”[2]
The second-hand nature of poetic representation was taken as a given by these philosophers because it had already been codified in Greek myth, in the form of the nine muses, each representing a different genre of poetic expression, and sent to inspire mortals to produce words, music and dance for the a-muse-ment of the Mount Olympus gods. The reliance on these “necessary angels”[3] for artistic inspiration has been a constant of Western literary history ever since, from the opening prayers to the muse for inspiration in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad to prominent roles in classic poems like Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
By the time of the Romantic movement, exterior muses had transmuted into what poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley internalized as a one-to-one correspondence between man (or, more precisely, man’s poetic sensibility) and nature. Poets, it was thought, have mystical gifts to access the realms of the eternal through a sensory relationship with nature (“an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around,”[4] as Shelley put it). But such a posture could not be sustained, even among the romantic poets. In the same poem, Shelley expresses a kind of terror that what he thought was direct inspiration from nature derived in part from something foreign in the human: “from secret springs / The source of human thought its tribute brings / Of waters—with a sound but half its own.”[5]
Such were the stirrings to re-inquire the thorny question belief in the muses had long ago, blithely answered: “Where does art come from?” The distance between the source and production of art grew wider in the age of which Stevens was a part, when the scientific materialism that became the dominant belief system would no longer tolerate supernatural beings, however theoretical, and whose ideas of progress involved automated production (including the mechanized implements of unprecedented mass slaughter). The art that grew out of this brought – as in the Garden of Eden – a self-awareness that came with the loss of innocence. The poet can no longer “presume” to be an open vessel of a larger, greater force; the ambiguities of language, perception, intention and motivation create a cocoon around the artist that threaten to swallow up what is said, as it paralyzes the saying of it.
It is here that Stevens “strides,” balancing the classical, romantic and modernist worlds – at the furthest geographic extreme as Professor Macksey points out – to address foundational questions such as “what creates a poem?” and “why does it affect us?”
The poem in question is “The Idea of Order at Key West,” written by Stevens in 1934 and used as the title poem for his second volume of poetry, Ideas of Order. Its first five stanzas examine a mysterious singer who walks alone on the beach, whose songs appear to the poet / speaker to be similar enough to the sound and feeling of the sea that he has difficulty discerning where one begins and the other ends.
Female singers near bodies of water in a poem naturally conjure up the image of the muses, especially since poetry in abstract is the topic of discussion. Stevens, as we will see, leaves this implication open, but he portrays her in decidedly human terms, for reasons we will learn as we pause along each line of the poem.[6]
She sang beyond the genius of the sea …
Genius, a seemingly odd term to describe the sea, makes more sense if one considers the word’s etymology. Deriving from the Latin, “attendant spirit present from one's birth, innate ability or inclination,” from the root of gignere, “beget,” the original sense gave rise to “a person's characteristic disposition” (late 16th century), which led to “a person's natural ability,” and finally “exceptional natural ability” (mid 17th century).[7] The poem plays upon this historic evolution by using the modern sense to suggest the sea has some exceptional artistic ability (what the singer would have) while still hewing to its classical “origin” by exhibiting its native (non-human) spirit.
In line with the singer as muse, the poet / speaker carries forward her song of the sea by personifying the sea in the poem as a “genius.” This doubling of function for singer and poet is also revealed in the sound of the line, as the thrice struck s consonance evokes the sibilance of the sea, while “she sang” sounds like waves breaking on the iamb, which in turns sets up a wave-like rhythm that continues through the poem.
The opening line also establishes that the sea will not be accurately represented in the singer’s art. By going “beyond” genius, she evades the sea’s true nature, either by transcending it or by falling short. The ambiguity of which one it is hangs over the entire poem like a dissonant chord that is extended but never resolved.
The water never formed to mind or voice, …
In literal terms, this line follows from the first, suggesting the distance between artist and subject arises from the responsive rather than generative nature of artistic expression. The sea does not yield words to explain itself to humans. In metaphorical terms, the Christian creation myth of the earth being created from the logos of God is reversed, suggesting some absolute separation from God for the water (the life force of nature), as well as for man whose mind, in traditional scholastic thought, approximates that of God.
Like a body wholly body, fluttering …
This first of many word repetitions highlights how the convention that the mind controls the body is so ingrained it is difficult to grasp what a body would be like without an inhabiting spirit (“fluttering”). One can hear the echo of “body of Christ” here, expressed as an empty vessel, synecdoche of religious practice without any real meaning. The effect would be the same, one suspects, in poetry, when the object of deification is absent or non-existent.
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion …
This image calls forth all kinds of robes and veils, officious and otherwise. Of the many implications, most striking perhaps is the idea of that there is nothing beyond what is veiled from our knowledge. Behind the sleeves lies the desolation of no meaning, expressed as an ocean full of changing, lifelike forms but lacking a controlling intelligence.
But something animates the sea. Is it “mimic motion?” If so, what is it mimicking? So we find ourselves back on the shores of “Plato’s ghost or Aristotle’s skeleton,”[8] where what we can perceive is only a dim approximation of what exists. How can an artist, in a world with meaning hidden, offer anything but emptiness?
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry …
Yet artists produce anything but emptiness, just as the void of sea seems to speak in many affecting voices. The consonance and repetition in this passage illustrates the heartbreaking beauty of lone voices who try to speak above an indifferent wilderness, as well as the annoyance such plangent and meaningless noise can create to the indifferent hearer.
The crying of the sea recalls the sirens and sea nymphs (also known as nereids) of ancient Greece, who take, like our unidentified singer, the shape and character of the water, but whose singing causes the humans who happen to hear it to become spellbound or insane. The sea nymph Calypso, for example, bewitches Odysseus to stay with her by singing to him on the shore as she moves, or “strides” to and fro. Calypso’s name means "concealing the knowledge."[9] In a similar vein, the “constant cry” may be heard as a constant veiling, like the continuous “white noise” of the sea.
That was not ours although we understood, …
The poet / speaker, speaking on behalf of all humans, reminds us here that, although the sea lies outside of our comprehension and control, humans can and do draw all sorts of human emotions from it, because it helps us – even with its resistance – to understand our own thoughts and feelings. We recognize our own cry in the sound of the occulted surf. Does the fact that the sea doesn’t intend such a meaning make it any less true?
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean. …
Veritable, from verité (truth), stands as a warning marker to remind us that the true ocean, beyond the “sea,” as “inhuman”, is also unknown to us. But how then can we can understand what is inaccessible? The first stanza ends with this seemingly intractable problem still flailing.
The sea was not a mask. No more was she. …
The iambs sounding like hissing surf, we’re told the ocean is not disguised after all. What we see and respond to is merely independent of whatever existence or essence it has. The singer is similarly unveiled, with the implication that she may not be any more comprehensible than the sea. The term “mask” calls to mind Melpomene, the Greek muse of song and tragedy, who came from the sea and is usually depicted wearing sleeves and the mask of tragedy (see “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured” and “theatrical distances” below). She in fact is not the mask she carries. That is for the human to wear. She is the inspirer of human song rather than the actual singer. Stevens in a later poem directly references Melpomene:
Sordid Melpomene, why strut bare boards,
Without scenery or lights, in the theatre’s bricks,
Dressed high in heliotrope’s inconstant hue,
The muse of misery? Speak loftier lines.
Cry out, “I am the purple muse.” Make sure
The audience beholds you, not your gown.[10]

Mask or not, this muse is veiled, high above the stage, safely away from the theatre goers to whom art is misery instead of transcendence. Like the singer, she is an elusive figure who withholds as much as she reveals.
The song and the water were not medleyed sound …
Whoever she is and whatever her song of the sea is based upon, it is “unmedleyed,” that is, not harmonious enough with the sea’s sound to allow even a blend of the two presences. 
Even if what she sang was what she heard …
The singer’s mimetic strategy does not qualify for even the status of imitation. This suggests the singer (or muse, or poet) is so fundamentally distanced from nature there can never be an accurate representation.
Since what she sang was uttered word for word. …
This is the first conclusion reached in the poem, that it is language, not the distance between perceiver and perceived, that keeps the sea from speaking through the song. The very act of using language to reproduce nature de-natures it, by shaping it into a medium foreign to its being. “Word for word” also connotes the artificiality of ordering words in temporal or relational sequence, how that distorts the all-encompassing ubiquity of (non-verbal) presence.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred …
Despite the gulfs between singer and song, human and nature, reality and perception, muses and Gods, language and what is represented, the end rhyme here suggests something is alive between the two polarities. Almost by chance, the singer may be conveying something of the sea.
The grinding water and the gasping wind; …
What stirs – what is conveyed – is how the sea effaces: the water that crushes and fragments as well as the wind that aggressively possesses the air. We sense, in other words, the negative consequences on us as humans, how the sea (and by extension, all that is “inhuman”) reduces our sense of self, competes with us for breath, in short, threatens to erase us. 
But it was she and not the sea we heard. …
As 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”[11] All we can understand of the sea is what comes from the singer, who seems, as the second stanza ends, to have now almost completely taken its place.
For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The seemingly inapt craft term “maker” is applied to the seemingly natural act of singing to introduce order as a contrast to the perceived disorder (or at least incommensurability) of the actual sea. Melpomene was associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and the only half-human Olympian immortal. In The Birth of Tragedy,[12] Nietzsche outlines two contrasting aesthetics, the Apollonian, which cultivates what Nietzsche calls “critical distance” to refine perception in order to create distinct forms such as sculpture; and the Dionysian, which counters the loss of unity in individuated perception by blurring the distinction between the perceiver and perceived to enter into the whole through direct, unmediated experience. Order and chaos, in other words, are the operating principles of “art-making.”  The Dionysian embraces all, much like the singer / muse who speaks for the entire sea. Carving out the distinctions between what is of the sea and what is of the singer, as the poet / speaker has done thus far, follows the Apollonian path.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea …
The sea continues to churn – beautifully expressed, hardly understood – as human emotions and thoughts are thrown into its mists. Melpomene is echoed again, as something removed from humans, not even accessible as inspiration.
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing, …
The sea is actually incidental to the singer, just a backdrop we have given value to. It has no intrinsic connection to her song. We gave them that connection because they are proximate, but, in fact, we understand the singer little more than the sea.
Whose spirit is this? We said, because we knew
As singer and sea disappear together in front of the poet, he recognizes that the animating spirit is nothing external at all, but within. We, in fact, create what the song is in the way we respond to it. The singer, too, is incidental.
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
What animates the song or poem or work of art is what critic Edmund Wilson calls “the shock of recognition,” a moment of enlightenment when something already known but hidden within us comes suddenly to the surface in admiration for a work of art.[13] Philosopher Martin Heidegger uses a similar concept when describing art (particularly poetry) as the “presencing of being,” where what is disclosed through art only exists as it breaks from the earth that veils it.[14]
That we should ask this often as she sang.
Our engagement with what is already inside us (“the voice that is great within us”)[15] is heightened as the singer continues to facilitate its disclosure, which in turn prompts us to go deeper for more self-knowledge. The challenge posed at the end of stanza three is why are we dependent on the singer for what we have already have? We do we have to ask for more? What is it about art that moves and changes us as observers?
Stevens proceeds to delve deeper into these questions.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea …
One difference between philosophic poetry like Stevens’ and actual philosophy is the way problems are resolved emotionally in poetry, by precisely locating the feeling (however ambiguous and unformed), rather than try to resolve the dissonance by bringing the idea to a logical conclusion. This stanza shows a good example of this, as the poet / speaker sets up an elaborate “if … then” proposition, only to modify the “if” into the more poetic “if only,” putting the emphasis on the longing for what doesn’t exist rather than on any necessary condition for fulfillment. The effect leaves the reader to swim inconclusively in the undertow of the unresolved desire of the poet for the “if only” of something else. This something else cannot be named as much as the space for it acknowledged. “If it was only” – if there was nothing but blank sea with no human relation, or, alternatively, if the poet could unselfconsciously personify the “dark” Dionysian nature of the sea with a human voice, then … relations would be clear, the human world would be simpler, there wouldn’t be the endless looking into the void of nature and seeing the terror of the human void starting back.
That rose, or even colored by many waves; …
It’s not the “dark voice of the sea” that rises, but something so disturbing it’s like the poet / speaker doesn’t really want to know what it is. He would settle for the scientific explanation of prisms formed (“even colored”) by the play of sun and wave, if there was only the assurance that that indeed is what creates the particular fancies and sense impressions humans have.
If it was only the outer voice of sky …
A second wave of “if only” propositions soughs mournfully to shore. “The outer voice of sky” – however nebulous that concept seems – implies an inner voice, the one that actually, in fact, speaks. The voice of sky, as has been alluded, comes from within our own minds, with all the attendant grief that nothing transcends the limits of what we aspire against, that there is no meaning external to that which we willfully create.
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled, …
Trapped within this human veil is the voice not only of clarity (“sky”) but of confusion (“cloud”). Our ability to ponder questions, hold conflicting ideas, not have answers is just as threatened as our ability to know the truth; the lack of external relation withholds meaning from our explorations there too. “Of the sunken coral water-walled” heightens the twin senses of the glamour and unavailability of the external world. The red color of most coral matches the allure of the Red Sea the Israelites escaped across through a wall of water, but the coral is “sunken,” indicating the divinely ordained escape is not available (or more likely, the belief in such a possibility is dead / buried) to the observing speaker.
Coral has the unique distinction of being both a plant and a rock, that is, endowed with both life and permanent shape. The Florida Keys, in fact, are shaped by the only living coral reef system in the U.S.[16] According to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, coral was created by Perseus – with help from the sea nymphs – out of the blood of Medusa’s severed head. Ovid, fascinated as Stevens was with the thresholds between realms, remarked of it “what is alive, under the water, above water is turned to stone”[17] Thus, it is not surprising that the poet who used stone as a symbol for what is no longer accessible to the imagination (“The lion in the lute / before the lion locked in stone”)[18] would situate the coral as “sunken.” Alive it is subsumed by the sea, unavailable to human use, in contrast to its petrified state where it is intractable. “If only,” the poet / speaker suggests, this dead thing that does not yield was all there was, and we didn’t know of the shimmer of living things we cannot reach.   
However clear, it would have been deep air, …
“If only” there was irrefutably nothing there instead of the cloying hint of something, then, the propositional premise concludes, the sea’s sound “would have been deep air.” The dichotomous frisson of “deep air” brings forward the realization that it is the human who gives the air depth, not an inherent quality. The satisfaction of the “then” in this proposition is that the human could, as the “if only” conditions were met, freely attribute depth, create it in fact, instead of having to represent the illusion of what is already there.
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound …
Air personified as having “heaving speech” projects a comical picture of an overblown, melodramatic presentation on stage. The assonance of the doubled ee sounds like the wind blowing, and the sense of the air rising and falling, even sighing, are perceptually fitting, yet it cannot be said the wind is speaking nor that its expression “lifts up” (to use the German heben derivation of the word “heave”). One can begin to sense how much of a vacuum imagination fills when it populates the air with the pontifications of a “too, too human God.”[19] But isn’t that, one is prompted to ask, what the air is actually for?
It’s similar with summer, which has so many varied sounds, so many connotations drawn from human experience, that it can be an ideal tabula rasa to sound out a human story, one distinct from the summer itself, that will leave the season like words disappear after their meaning is communicated.  
Repeated in a summer without end …
Summer thus within the human grasp becomes endless. And the story can be told again and again, refined over time as human experience responds to its own history. That this idea would be expressed with the positive and pleasurable image of “summer without end” adds poetic grandeur to the potentiality Stevens here aspires to, of a world where human expression is the sine qua non of all that is.
And sound alone. But it was more than that, …
“Sound alone,” in this vein, connotes “expression alone.” There is no external referent. It’s a far cry from the mimesis of ancient Greece. Why would this be necessary? What is so disturbing and threatening about the external world to the poet? The short answer comes in the next statement: “more.” There is more to what is human than the natural world can provide, and it is only in imagination that we can access it. To be free, true, autonomous, the human must, in some way, be – or at least be acknowledged as – more.
More even than her voice, and ours, among …
The human thus separated out and elevated against the incomprehensible hum of nature, the singer’s voice and ours are one. But there is something “more,” it turns out, beyond “even” the transcendent human.
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind, …
This beyond human more cannot be found in “meaningless” nature, but humans have to endure, to be “among,” the nullity of water and wind in order to voice what they have to say.
Theatrical distances, …
They also have to endure “theatrical distances,” an apt term for what Jean-Paul Sartre later described as mauvaise foi (“bad faith”), in which people, to conform with what they believe to be the social contract, adopt inauthentic personas to actively hide their true self, and play roles behind a series of masks in hopes what is repressed will be revealed.[20] Thus is created a seemingly insurmountable distance of inauthenticity and deception between humans. This “theatrical distance” has be endured no less than that distance between humans and the physical world. 
bronze shadows heaped / On high horizons,
There is also the confusion of how the human and the non-human have been intermingled. Bronze is a human invention, designed in part to approximate the look of the sun. What sets at twilight to the human eye, the physical sun, or its representation in bronze? The sun (being inaccessible) reduces to bronze, which reduces (through human sublimation) to the slag heap of elements of which it is composed. All we can say of the wide dispersion of color at sunset is that it’s “on high horizons,” an abstract concept removed, as words always are, from what is directly experienced.
mountainous atmospheres / Of sky and sea. …
The long fourth stanza ends with the last of a string of paradoxical descriptions, “mountainous atmospheres / Of sky and sea.” At one level, as with many of the physical descriptions in this stanza, it’s easy to recognize: clouds over the sea appear like mountains on the horizon. On another level, it’s a contradiction of terms; how can air filled with water vapor be equivalent to massive stone outcroppings? They can’t, it’s just that sun and sea, mountain and cloud, earth and sky have become indistinguishable. After all the infringements on the human ability to express where and who we are through song, we are left with perhaps the most poignant one, how everything blurs to oneness despite all our efforts at discernment. What is left, then, of the individual, specifically the individual voice? Is there anything real in what the single self feels?
It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing. … 
With these challenges to the autonomous existence of the human voice established, the broken fifth stanza re-introduces the singer, to identify, in a list of her qualities, what’s important about the human urge to express through poetry and art. Her singing voice makes “the sky acutest at its vanishing,” that is, the artist provides meaning – or at least consolation – when humans are kept from ultimate knowledge. The stories we tell of heaven, for example, only make sense at “vanishing,” when there is no longer an actual heaven to impinge on them. It is precisely when heaven veils itself, in fact, when the absence is “acutest,” that the singer can provide emotional sustenance.
She measured to the hour its solitude. …
Further, the singer brings a sense of human time – the zeitgeist or spirit of the age in which she lives – to the ever-present separation between the mortal (human) and the eternal (heavenly). Each epoch of human solitude has its own relationship with the touchstones of meaning it has been left with to explain what is hidden, and each translates them through its own experience. The singer stands apart from this historical play to measure “to the hour” (to and of the times) in order to contextualize it among some deeper continuum of emotional response. We care little, for example, about the players and political battlegrounds of Renaissance Florence, yet we can readily place ourselves and others in the deepest rung of Dante’s Inferno.
She was the single artificer of the world …
Here is made the key distinction between the artist as “creator” and as “artificer.” The creator acts as God, omniscient and all-powerful inside the artistic creation, whereas the artificer merely generates the myths that explain what is perceived. Stevens’ point is that such a distinction doesn’t matter. The original creation is so removed from us that the secondary rendering of the artist actually replaces it. The clear implication – and it runs throughout Stevens’ work – is that the work of imagination has replaced faith in the modern world as the access point to ontological queries.
Thus art, though it purports to represent the natural world, has supplanted it. Why, then, if the role of the artist is so important, was the poet in stanza four mourning the encroachments upon the artist from the outside? The answer, as the following stanzas make clear, is that the creator may disappear as readily as the external world that has been overcome. Thus the existential crisis at the center of the poem deepens as the search for the source of art (what prior ages said simply was the muse) becomes more and more problematic.  
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, …
Again, the singer didn’t create a world, but inhabited one (“in which she sang”). Part of that world, the sea she walked besides, was incorporated into her song.
Whatever self it had, became the self …
The poet / speaker here remarks on the transference of the “self” of the sea into that of the singer. It is not the one-to-one correspondence the romantic poets would have one believe, but some common shadow between perceiver and perceived – perhaps alien to both – the becomes the realized song.
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we, …  
There is only the song, in fact, left of the two polarities. It is not the singer that is expressed, even though she created the expression.
As we beheld her striding there alone, …
“We,” as hearers of the song, can see her figure in the distance, may even see her lips move, but have no access point to her being (she’s “alone”), except her song – or, more precisely, our reaction to her song.
Knew that there never was a world for her …  
Despite our separation from her, we know (presumably from her song) that she is not a part of this world. We even know that “there never was a world for her.” There are certain singers (and artists) who give us this instinctual understanding, because their inspiration is so surprising, their mien so otherworldly, their concerns so remote from our common human experience. In the realm of poets, names such as William Blake, Friedrich Hölderlin, Emily Dickinson and Pierre Reverdy come to mind, figures ostracized from their societies yet held up as avatars by later versions of the same societies.
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
As the poem has deliberatively snaked through the Florida Keys of its argument, we find ourselves at its farthest extremity: the abyss of inspiration. There is only the unaccountable song. The world, the singer and even the listener have been cast adrift from any anchoring shore.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know, 
At this point the poem pulls back decisively from the void, turning the spotlight around to a recognizable Key West from where all that came prior was beheld. A mysterious figure named Ramon Fernandez takes the place of the mysterious singer, both as the object of address and as the alter impulse of Apollonian rationality to the singer’s Dionysian disembodiment.
There does not, of course, have to be an actual Ramon Fernandez to recognize the quality of duende the sound of the name brings to the speaker in his emotional distress as he searches for whatever human correlation is available. Nor is a real-life person necessary to recognize this figure as a type of limited rationalist who, in fact, cannot answer the unanswerable questions the poet / speaker poses, because they exist beyond the human mind, however keenly they are felt.
This did not stop various correspondents from asking Stevens if he was referring to French-born Mexican literary critic Ramon Fernandez (1894-1944), a friend of Marcel Proust who co-founded the Nouvelle Revue Française and published contemporaneously with Stevens in many of the same little magazines. In 1953, Stevens replied, “Ramon Fernandez was not intended to be anyone at all. I chose two everyday Spanish names”[21] and, then, in 1954, “The real Fernandez used to write Feuilletons in one of the Paris weeklies and it is true that I used to read these. But I did not consciously have him in mind.”[22] 
Stevens’ evasion is probably out of kindness to future readers. For “the real Fernandez” could never take the place of the absent Fernandez of the poem. Still, Fernandez’s musings on self and world, faith and skepticism and the source of the imaginative impulse offer similar scents to those Stevens cultivates here, a bouquet that reminds more modern readers of a time when such rarefied ontological discussions were commonplace:    
“Let us for once have the courage to put nullity in its true place, reality in its true place, to make fullness within us and void around us. Let us examine our skepticism until we discover the root of our faith. What! As soon as I touch the depth of myself I feel myself urged to hope, to will, to believe in a world different from that which surrounds me, in a being different from myself.[23]
The seriousness with which the speaker approaches Ramon is indicated by “Tell me, if you know,” which repeats the same question asked by God in the Book of Job, “Have you surveyed the extent of the earth? Tell Me, if you know all this”[24]
Why, when the singing ended and we turned / Toward the town …
It turns out it hadn’t been the single perception of the poet / speaker generalizing to all of humanity (“we”) his own reactions, but an actual audience (at least including Ramon Fernandez). They had been listening to the singer on the beach, and then dispersed “toward the town” when the show was over. The introduction of an audience clearly reorients the poem from art as it is created to the collective response to it. We’ve all had the almost magical impression of life being intensified after a good song, movie or book, where what is real seems to blend with what is imagined in a seamless way. When the speaker returns, with “why, when the singing ended, …,” to the questions of the relation of humanity to what is beyond it, it’s within this frame of how the song they’d heard enlarged their consciousness to perceive things with a more imaginative cast, as if more than a song had been transferred from the singer.
tell why the glassy lights, / The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
The same lights are characterized in two different ways on either side of the line break. They are first described as “glassy,” which suggests with Dionysian multi-valence a blurred and diffused warmth whereby the lights around the town appear to be the same as the stars. That’s the imaginative impression. The second description, “the lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,” is precise and factual, placing the lights in time and space but with no implications beyond their physical appearance. That’s the Apollonian refinement of form, the “reality” in opposition to imagination.
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Nightfall for Stevens is the gateway to imagination:
Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good[25]

The masts of the ships bob on the surface of the water, but they also appear to tilt – like Don Quixote’s heroic knight – at the impassive sky. The impression is of an opening to a deeper reality beyond the one we see. But the reality is one-sided, the effect of consciousness alone, with no participation from the heavenly other. It is only a theory, something to long for.
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,  
The question asked over these last three lines is: why did the human lights, when it got dark, seem to organize (“portion out”) external appearance, to the point where the night itself is overcome (“mastered”)? As is common throughout the poem, there is an exterior (exoteric) and interior (esoteric) connotation. At the level of appearance, this is essentially the same question any traveler might ask when they see the straight lines and geometrical patterns from the artificial lights of an oncoming town, and how they overwhelm the natural darkness all around them. At a metaphysical level, it’s an acknowledgement that the darkness of the creator God on all matters of ultimate reality has been overcome or at least compensated for by the human ability to independently generate truth.
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,  
But it’s not just the electric lightbulb as analytic reproduction of the electric sun. The human imagination is itself a flame. The dark areas (“zones”) that are framed (“fixed”) by light are “emblazoned,” which connotes an almost ostentatiously conspicuous display. The masts of the boats are “fiery” as their lights move to the rhythm of the waves. Humanity has made its mark both as creator of light and perceiver of the life within its creation. Thus, a kind of humanism walks hand in hand with materialism, just as the assonance of “zones” with “poles” colors highly abstract concepts with a poetic cast.   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. …
This human mastery is in turn applied to organize the larger night, the proverbial silence of the Gods that our imagination, to Stevens, replaces. The questions are not answered, though, they merely deepen, and the night is lit not with the philosopher’s torch of Apollonian clarity, but by the poetic enchantments of the soft-lit moon.
The hearers have, in effect, taken on the role of the singer in replacing – however incompletely – the external world. Stevens’ long-idealized notion of art replacing Gods in which we can no longer believe seems within reach in the afterglow of the singer’s song. But this too is provisional, a stage in the progression of thought. We soon are stuck at the idea of order.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon, …
Despite the human having grown, like Stevens’ rabbit “humped higher and higher … a self that touches all edges” so that the predatory “cat is a bug in the grass,”[26] there is still a metaphysical something else that makes humans do what we do. “Blessed” by God, it is the “rage for order.” The passionate Dionysus and the rational Apollo merge, as in, according to Nietzsche, the ancient Greek tragedy overseen by Melpomene, which he considered to be the highest expression of art. Here too, the poet / speaker, like a Greek tragic hero, finds his downfall at his moment of triumph. For there would be no need for order without the rage, and no possibility of order with it. The butterfly of the poem to be captured remains elusive precisely because the reason for the chase is never known, and the pursuer ends up in circles grasping at something he knows can never be reached. 
The futility of art-making may have something to do with why Ramon, the stand-in for the audience, is cast with ghostly pallor; as what is said continues to be abraded, the audience receiving the disappearing song, as we've seen with the sea, singer and poet, also disappears.
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea, …  
Both singer and poet, as makers of art, have an inordinate desire to make sense of the sea. Yet, as we have discovered, it is inaccessible.
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, …
Stymied, the artist seeks an explanation of the “fragrant portals,” the access point to what drives him or her, but they too are “dimly-starred,” part of the universal darkness.
And of ourselves and of our origins, …
In dumb rage, the would-be creator finally tries to make sense of himself – the null set that has been avoided thus far, but this as well can’t be grasped without knowing one’s origins, how humans fit in and where they come from.
We are left with the constant, inexplicable cry like that of the sea.
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
But the cry, in the end, is far from meaningless, for everything that is human – every longing for unity that has been withheld – comes into the song, to provide meaning in and of itself. The artist outlines of the world, the “demarcations,” are, reflecting Plato,[27] “ghostlier” than the external reality. But there is some relation, if only in the striving that seems to come from some common source. There is a kind of order (for example, there are 15 r sounds in just the last stanza alone).The sounds made by singer and poet are keener: the act of mourning (one sense of “keen”) creates a clarity (another sense of “keen”) that almost catapults the expression to the status of truth about ourselves, our origins, and the fragrant openings to home we aspire to cross.
Thus the poem ends, not exactly hopeful, but with a fuller sense of what art is, why we create it, why we need it. 



[1] Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by Paul Shorey, Harvard University Press, 1969. Republic X 595-602, quoted at 597b.
[2] Aristotle. The Poetics of Aristotle. Edited with critical notes and a translation by S. H. Butcher, MacMillan And Co., 1902, VII.
[3] The title of Wallace Stevens’ 1950 book of “essays on reality and the imagination.”
[4] Shelley, Percy. “Mont Blanc (Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni).” Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, W.B. Norton, 1977, p. 90, l. 40-41.
[5] Ibid., p. 90, l. 4-6.
[6] All italicized passages from Stevens, Wallace. “The Idea of Order at Key West.” The Collected Poems. Alfred A. Knopf, 1954, pp. 128-129.
[7] “Genius.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1980
[8] Stevens, Wallace. “Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit.” The Collected Poems, p. 327.
[9] Etymologicum Magnum (ed. Gaisford, col. 1549)
[10] Stevens, Wallace. “In a Bad Time.” The Collected Poems, p. 426.
[11] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. MacMillan Publishing Co., 1953, p. 223.
[12] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy of Hellenism and Pessimism. Translation by William S. Haussmann, The Macmillan Company, 1910.
[13] Wilson, Edmund. The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It. Modern Library, 2nd Edition, 1961.
[14] Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter, Harper and Row Perennial Library, 1975.
[15] Stevens, Wallace. “Evening without Angels.” The Collected Poems, p. 136.
[16] Agassiz, Louis. “Report on the Florida reefs.” Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology VII:1. Harvard College, Cambridge, 1880.
[17] Ovid. The Metamorphoses. A translation into English prose by A.S. Kline, Poetry in Translation, 2000, 4.750-52.
[18] Stevens, Wallace. “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” The Complete Poems, pp. 175.
[19] Stevens, Wallace. “Esthetique du Mal.” The Collected Poems, p. 315.
[20] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. Translation by Lloyd Alexander, New Directions Publishing, 1964.
[21] Letter to Bernard Heringman, September 1, 1953. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Selected and edited by Holly Stevens, University of California Press, 1966, p. 798.
[22] Letter to Renato Poggioli, March 4, 1954. Letters of Wallace Stevens, p. 823.
[23] Fernandez, Ramon. “La Garantie des Sentiments et les Intermittences du Coeur” [The Guarantee of Feelings and the Fitfulness of the Heart], Nouvelle Revue Française, April 1924, p. 101.
[24] The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version, Holman Publishing, 1978, 38:18.
[25] Stevens, Wallace. “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” The Collected Poems, p. 524.
[26] Stevens, Wallace. “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” The Collected Poems, p. 209.
[27] “The creator of the phantom, the imitator, we say, knows nothing of the reality but only the appearance.” From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, ob. cit. Republic X, 601c.