I just ran across a poem called The Emperor of Ice-Cream (it’s the author’s hyphen in "Ice-Cream," not mine). If it hadn’t been explained to me I wouldn’t have a clue what it was about. Once someone has explained the poem, however, re-reading it really makes you think…
But before we leap into the poem itself, let’s start with the Poet – Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). In many ways Wallace was an unexpected poet. After graduating from law school, he spent most of his life working for insurance companies.
Although Wallace spent much of his time focused on his professional life, he was an avid walker. He might walk 10 or 20 miles a day at the weekend just for fun, and he also walked a couple of miles to and from work each day (through rain, shine, snow…).
While Wallace was walking he mentally composed his verses, which he dictated to his secretary when he got to work or wrote down himself when he returned home.
The result has been described as “paradoxically simple yet complicated” poetry. It is also said that: "Wallace’s language and word choices tend to be easy to understand, but the overall structure and meaning of his poems are often difficult to grasp.” I’m so glad someone else said this – I was beginning to think I was stupid.
As an example, here’s one of Wallace’s poems – The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Read it through without sneaking a peak at my notes afterwards and see what you think:
The Emperor of Ice-Cream Call the roller of big cigars, The muscular one, and bid him whip In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. Let the wenches dawdle in such dress As they are used to wear, and let the boys Bring flowers in last month's newspapers. Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal, Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet On which she embroidered fantails once And spread it so as to cover her face. If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
OK, what do you think? When I first read this I thought "it has a certain something" but – as I mentioned earlier in this blog – on that first read I really didn’t have any clue as what this poem was actually about. Thus, I bounced over to the trusty Wikipedia, where I discovered the following interpretation:
The Emperor of Ice-Cream is set after the death of an unnamed woman, whose body lies in state as family and friends complete actions associated with burial and funerals. A man is summoned to prepare ice-cream for the wake, while "wenches" - presumably female relatives and friends - appear wearing their usual funeral attire. A sheet once embroidered by the dead woman is removed from a dresser of deal, a cheap timber, highlighting her rather ordinary status. The sheet is used to cover the dead woman but does not cover her feet, which serve as a reminder of her mortality and deathly silence.
The inference Stevens seems to make about these practices are that they are mundane petty ceremonies, rather than preparations for an afterlife. He also notes the gravity and finality of death, suggesting that the "finale of be(ing)" should also be considered the finale of "seem(ing)". Yet there is sufficient ambiguity in aspects of the poem to leave gaps on Stevens' atheism. The "roller of big cigars" and the titular 'Emperor of Ice-Cream' may, for instance, refer to a god, albeit a god of ephemeral things.
If you now return to re-read the poem keeping this explanation in mind, it’s like reading something completely different. It makes me wonder just how much I’m missing when I read poetry in general, which admittedly is not all that often, but every now-and-again…
There was this great scene in the Movie Back to School where Rodney Dangerfield goes back to college after making a fortune. In his literature class, he is given the assignment to write a book report on Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions." The next scene Dangerfield is berating the author himself because he hired Vonnegut to write the book report but his report only received a "B" as a grade.
You know I was sort of thinking something like this (but using shorter words) when I read the interpretation on Wikipedia -- I remember saying to myself "well, that makes sense, but suppose someone else had interpreted it in a different way, maybe that would have made sense also." I remember seeing a sketch on some TV program where folks are stood in front of a modern painting offering all sorts of diverse interpretations as to what it means -- then the artist passes by and informs them that it's been hung upside down :-)
What is interesting about poetry (and prose) and the whole genre of literary criticism is a little device called the "Intentional Fallacy" aka "Fallacy of Intentionality," which basically holds that an author's intention doesn't tell the full story of what he or she has written. The fallacy is somewhat self serving to those who specialize in writing interpretations/criticism of other people's prose (sometimes in addition to writing their own) but it has validity. You can imagine a scene where someone is writing about someone else but doesn’t realize it showing a bias or obsession or certain trait or mood about the writer as well as their subject. It's even more interesting when you compare and contrast interpretations from literary critics specializing in particular schools of criticism. Imagine interpreting Wally's piece through the lens of political critic, a feminist, ethnic, religious, etc. Many points of view--all valid depending on what life experiences you bring to the poem. What's great about some poetry is that it draws you in, makes you think and can stick with you...in turn further coloring your life experience. Further it tends to do this with few but precisely and skillfully placed words. Too bad poetry is often associated with elitism or something you must have a Piled higher Deeper in lit to fully understand. That is, of course, the biggest fallacy.
Mike Santarini, Xilinx Xcell Journal