I just ran across a poem called The Emperor of Ice-Cream (it's the author's hyphen, not mine). If it hadn't been explained to me I wouldn't have a clue what it was about. Once you do know what it's about, however, re-reading it really makes you think...
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…