NaPoMo, Day 2: The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Now I want ice cream.

It’s Day 2 of National Poetry Month. Here at The Read Room I’m reading I’m observing a different poetry practice for each week. This week I’m reading 10 poems a day (a very comfortable pace), providing links here, and sharing my favorite from the day’s reading as well as observations of craft.

Here are the 10 poems I read today (favorites starred):

From Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

  1. “France”
  2. “O Captain! My Captain!”
  3. “Old Salt Kossabone”
  4. “The Dismantled Ship”*
  5. “Are You The New Person Drawn Toward Me?”*

From A Poet’s Corner, compiled by John Lithgow

  1. “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” by William Wordsworth
  2. “No Doctors Today, Thank You” by Ogden Nash*
  3. “To Autumn” by John Keats*
  4. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens*
  5. “There is no Frigate like a Book” by Emily Dickinson*

My favorite among them was this:

The Emperor Of Ice-Cream

by Wallace Stevens

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.

Observations

There were many good poems to choose from today, but I selected this one to address something that seems to deter people from poetry: the irresistible need to understand. What does it mean, what does it mean? The inability to understand often turns people off to poetry. I offer “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” to challenge this mindset.

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” has several layers of meaning, but more importantly is open to interpretation (as many good poems are). I was taught to read poems more than once and find that when I do, I notice more and different details with each reading, and thus understand more– though admittedly, not always everything. And that’s okay.

The first time I read this poem I thought it was just about ice cream and celebrating. You know– call the roller of big cigars! He’s making mean whips in the kitchen and the boys are bringing flowers! I supposed that the sheet that covered the face was a paper around the cone.

I read it again. “Who is this ‘she’?” I wondered. I checked the second stanza for concrete clues, indications: “cold” suggested ice cream, but horny feet protruding didn’t sound like ice cream or a cone and no one would embroider fantails onto ice cream paper. I read “cover her face” again and realized this was a person the poem was talking about: it’s a funeral, or a wake that we’re at.

Still, it seems to me an attitude of celebration– and that’s one of the things I love about this poem: the ambiguity! Call the roller of big cigars…this is living! This is an occasion!

Also, note the repeating line. Just about anytime a line is repeated in poetry it carries special significance– so when the poet does this, listen up! “The only emperor is the emperor of of ice-cream.” This is a line that requires a second reading, maybe a third and fourth– and people might still reach different interpretations. What I get from this, in the context of the rest of the poem being about somebody who died, is that the only “emperor” (king, god, ruler, etc.) there can be is one of transient, fleeting things: ice cream, for one. Youth. Life. Life is short: we are only kings of the moment.

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