“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

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.


Filed under Literature

6 responses to ““The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens

  1. I agree with you; the most clever thing in writing and rewriting is to take a complex message and make it simple for the reader to understand. This poem is very arty but, for me, didn’t project pathos.

  2. By the way, I recently wrote a review of The Casual Vacancy. Hope you’re enjoying it.

    • jeff japp

      Hi Margaret. Thanks for your comments. I checked out your blog and like what I read, but avoided your review of Casual Vacancy — for now. I’ll check your review out after I am done reading the book.

  3. Pingback: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot | Stuff Jeff Reads

  4. Stevens is a tough nut to crack at first (I know, I hated him when I was studying lit at university, but love him now). As with many modernist poets, he initially seems unnecessarily obscure on first reading, but once you get into him, you find him really an amazing and totally original poet. You might find some of his less difficult poems real delights and entrées or keys for a greater appreciation of his body of work: “The Snow Man,” “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “Sunday Morning”

    • Stuff Jeff Reads

      Hi Margaret. Thanks for the suggestions. I had read someone’s blog post about “Snow Man” and I found it interesting. I will definitely check those out. Cheers!