My daughter showed me a poem that was being discussed in her English class: “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens. I read the poem and she asked if I understood it. I had to confess that a quick read over my first morning cup of coffee left me feeling bewildered about what the poem was describing. She told me that it was describing a funeral and that she didn’t see it either until the teacher explained it. I read it again and was able to catch the imagery once I knew what I was looking for.
I read the poem again and there was still a lot that didn’t click for me. For such a short poem, it was really difficult to unravel. Then I found the missing bit of information online that brought the poem into clarity for me. The funeral described in the poem was supposedly set in Key West where it is a tradition to serve ice cream at a funeral. Then the “roller of big cigars” made sense to me, having been to Key West and visited the shops where cigars were still rolled by hand.
So this poem got me thinking about Modernist poetry and what it is about the Modernists that annoys me. While I appreciate the challenge of deciphering a poem, and I appreciate the complexity that the Modernists incorporated into their work, I almost feel that they took commonplace events and intentionally tried to make them hard to understand. This is the opposite of writers who came before them, who used poetry as a way to express that which is hard to convey, or in some cases, ineffable. I question the whole concept of writing poetry so challenging that one needs to have it explained by a professor in order to grasp its meaning. In fact, I had a creative writing teacher in college criticize one of my poems for this same reason, that it was virtually impossible to understand unless it was explained. I kind of took that to heart. You have to provide just enough information to allow your reader into your work.
Click here to read the poem online.