James Longenbach: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Stevens always insisted that "Ramon Fernandez" was "not intended to be anyone at all," and, in a sense, like the "Mr. Burnshaw" of "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," he is a caricature [Stanley Burnshaw, as addressed in Stevens’ poem, was active as a Marxist critic in the 1930s]. Yet most of Stevens’s readers will know that Fernandez was a critic familiar to Stevens from the pages of the Nouvelle revue française, the Partisan Review, and the Criterion (where he was translated by T. S. Eliot). Fernandez’s criticism became increasingly politically engaged in the 1930s, especially after the violent riots and the general strike he witnessed in Paris in the wake of the Stavisky Affair. (The mastermind of illicit financial deals in which the French government was implicated, Stavisky was found dead – apparently by his own hand, though his suicide seemed to most French citizens to have been far too convenient.) After the riots, Fernandez published an open letter to Gide in the Nouvelle revue française, asserting that while he had not opposed the fascist cause before the riots, he was now converted to the struggle of the proletariat. The letter provoked a number of letters in response, some of them challenging Fernandez, others simply canceling subscriptions to the Nouvelle revue française.

That this controversy lay behind Stevens’s use of Fernandez’s name in "The Idea of Order" would have seemed apparent to anyone who read Stevens’s poem in Alcestis along with the current issue of the Partisan Review, which contained a translation of Fernandez’s "I Came Near Being a Fascist." There Fernandez confessed that he had "a professional fondness for theorizing, which tends to make one highly susceptible to original ‘solutions.’" It was just that susceptibility that bothered Stevens and made him challenge Fernandez to answer a question to which he knew there was no certain answer. Stevens’s interest in the ambiguity of ideas did not mean that he took ideas lightly; on the contrary, he lamente what he thought of as "the Lightness with which ideas are asserted. Held, abandoned" in "the world today." Nor did Stevens mean to equate ambiguity with the intentional obscuring of an ambiguous world; he condemned the poet "who wrote with the idea of being deliberately obscure" as "an impostor." With his public announcements of political commitments and conversions, Fernandez was the opposite of Stevens, who recoiled at the idea of associating himself with any group or program that offered "solutions." Fernandez, suggests Stevens in "The Idea of Order," might have been certain about the source and effect of the singer’s song, but the only thing Stevens was sure of was that in his certainty, Fernandez would have been wrong.

… Stevens believed that we cannot live without ideas of order, but like [R. P.] Blackmur he understood that he could not talk about order without raising the specter of disorder, and that any idea of order that did not leave space for its own dissolution could not be tolerated. In this sense, responding to Fernandez’s dogmatism, Stevens might have titled his poem "The Idea of Disorder at Key West." As he would put it in "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," "even disorder may, / So seen, have an order of its own." In the terms of Kenneth Burke that both Blackmur and Stevens admired, these poems of order do not offer "the seasoned stocks and bonds of set belief," but "a questioning art, still cluttered with the merest conveniences of thinking, a highly fluctuant thing often turning against itself and its own best discoveries.""

From James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 161-162.


Title James Longenbach: On "The Idea of Order at Key West" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Longenbach Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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