Here we see a long-ago incarnation of yours truly, taking notes on Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West," most likely in Intro to Poetry, circa 1985. It's clear from the flat, dutiful quality of these notes that I was recording my professor's statements as he walked us through the poem. That is to say, I had literally no idea what he, or Stevens, was talking about. The interpretation of the poem was as incomprehensible to me as the poem itself. Yes, this is auditory. Yes, this is conditional. This is spiritual language. So what? I didn't understand how any of these concepts elucidated the poem, or vice versa. Thanks in part to the New Critical practices my teachers were steeped in at the time, the whole discussion became an echo chamber of abstractions.
The final proof of how lost I was lies in the title of the next poem, "The Poems of Our Climate," where you see my younger self filling in the o's. Now, I was not normally one to engage in this activity. In fact, I recall thinking at various times in my youth that filling in o's and p's and e's in printed text was a sure sign of idiocy. Yet here I am, not only doing that very thing, but carefully shading the o's for a 3-D effect. I had completely thrown in the towel on Stevens.
Rereading the poem now, I find both more and less here than these notes suggest. I'm certainly less intimidated by it, and can sort of relate to it without being able to articulate exactly what it's "about." And that's probably because I simply have much more experience, with poetry and with life. Also I don't have to write a paper about this, which reduces the anxiety level considerably; but if I did have to write one, I would likely spend a lot more time on the poem's aesthetic qualities, and how they create an experience that doesn't necessarily represent anything beyond itself. That is, poetry happens within the poem. It is not always, or at least not solely, a pointer.
With this hindsight, it seems critical that anyone teaching such poems in high school and college remember how increasingly distant our young charges' experiences and concerns are from those of a middle-aged white poet in 1935. How might we bridge the gap?
I think we could start with the advice Dean Bakopoulos gives in this marvelous piece from the NYT. Before even beginning to wrestle with a story or poem's "meaning," whatever we're trying to get at with that, first let students select sentences or phrases or words that move them. They don't have to know why these words speak to them, only that they do on some level other than pure logic. They might like the words, in fact, because they're confusing. They present a new, unfamiliar experience.
After a while, you might begin to introduce some context, like Stevens's particular interests and concerns, and some general concerns of his time and place and class and culture. How is this individual mind interacting with external ideas and questions, as well as with physical places and experiences like hearing and seeing and feeling?
I frankly have little experience teaching poetry, and find more experimental pieces much harder to deal with than this one. But it does behoove us, when we teach, to try to put ourselves in our students' shoes, remembering how little we knew, back in the day, about the lives of those to whom this poem speaks more readily.