Stevens said this was his favorite of his own poems. I’ve always loved it, first for the sounds and lush words, gradually for the scene that began to emerge. My grandparents, just a little younger than Stevens, shared his sense of ice cream as something new and magical. My grandfather smiled at its mention in the same way he did when he described seeing women’s ankles for the first time as hems began to creep up. My mother remembered hand-cranked pineapple ice cream as her favorite childhood dessert, and made a note in my baby book when I had my first taste of ice cream–then finished the bowl and wanted more. Stevens’ poem captures the thrill and delight and sensual pleasure of ice cream, and its evanescence: death is just in the other room. I found this great account at the Poetry Foundation.
Feel free to add your own thoughts about the poem, ice cream, and other hot weather favorites.
Thanks for this, Sharon. I loved the sound of this poem long before it made “sense” to me (previously it had made sense in the sensual rather than understanding kind of way). I gradually came to put it together over the years, and fully felt it when I was in Key West a couple of years ago. Then I discovered Helen Vendler’s unpacking of the poem, which confirmed a lot of my thoughts. In many Third World countries, funerals are also a celebration of life, especially among the poor…and ice-cream is a celebration of life accessible to the poor and wealthy alike. Also, in my twenties I used to go to these odd pop-up dance parties in New York that you’d only hear about if you knew someone who knew someone. One was in a Cuban funeral home, where an old woman’s body lay visible behind the strobe lights and giant speakers. I asked the proprietor if this didn’t seem a bit disrespectful, and he told me that no, his people always danced and sang around the dead.
Tony, that scene at the Cuban funeral home is wonderful, and a perfect companion for the Stevens poem. I’m always happy when I see families having picnics in a cemetery, that mingling of the living and the dead. One reason I so liked Six Feet Under. My grandmother used to describe bathing and dressing dead relatives, laying them out in the parlor. That sort of connection seems just right to me, and I think people are slowly making their way back to it, after all the disconnection brought about by the “funeral industry.” Did you ever read or see Waugh’s “The Loved One?” It’s been years since I did, but I’m going to see if I can find it online.
These posts are just wonderful. I love how you personalize your thoughts on “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by introducing us to your family members and their love of such a new treat. Thank you as well for pointing us to the Poetry Foundation analysis of the poem. I treasure this blog and the links that you suggest.
Thanks Pat. I’m really missing teaching as much as I used to, and it’s nice to have a place to think out loud with other writers and artists–visiting you in your studio is still vivid in my mind because it was so invigorating.
I used to teach “Emperor of Ice Cream” with “Ode on Melancholy,” and after a little nudging and coaxing, students would see that Keats approached, in a different manner, the notion that objects that produce extremes of sensual pleasure, especially food — the ice cream, the grapes — also embody and prefigure their own (and our) dissolution and demise.
This is really interesting. I’d never thought about the parallel, I think because the tone and diction are so different, but it immediately makes sense to me.
An “Emperor of Ice Cream” story I read years ago and always pass on to my students: At some point, someone at the Ice Cream Manufacturers’ Association who had read the poem wrote to Wallace Stevens to ask him whether he was for or against ice cream.
For or against: I love it. The gap between the poem and the response also reminds me of the parallel but separate realities of the physical world and the worlds poetry creates. I think of WC Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.” And of Stevens’ woman singing by the sea in “The Idea of Order at Key West”: “The song and water were not medleyed sound.”
I first read “The Emperor of Ice Cream” in high school, from the same textbook that included versions of Emily Dickinson’s poems published before Thomas Johnson’s 1956 edition. The poem was paired with “[in just-]” byE.E. Cummings, maybe because both poems were seasonal, and maybe because both featured people with feet like hooves. I appreciated Cummings’s spritely rhythms, but was drawn to the mystery of Stevens. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to get the play between “concupiscent” and “whip,” and I didn’t know what a “dresser of deal” was—the only furniture involved with “deal” in my house was Mom’s folding card table. But the litany of imperatives made me sense soemthing both embodied by and underneath the music. I didn’t understand Stevens, but whatever was going on felt deep and important, if not as accessible as Cummings.