Kia Penso: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

Here is an interesting experiment anyone can try if he or she has followed me this far: first, find an intelligent and discerning person who is perhaps not very interested in or familiar with Stevens' poems; this is not as difficult as it might seem. Get this person to read "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." (This person, obviously, has to be honest and not trying to ingratiate himself with you, i.e. willing to say "I don't get it.") Then try to explain, using only the one poem, why it is about belief. What details of that scene have anything to do with belief? "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is frequently anthologized, and yet, standing by itself it reads like lively wordplay that has carefully crafted the illusion of referring to something. We start out hearing some of the objects as symbols. But what could a deal dresser missing a few glass knobs be a symbol of? And a dead woman's protruding feet are much too distracting as objects in themselves to be pointing to something transcendent. The poem does refer to something, of course. The line "let be be finale of seem" can be explained. But it is not a simple task to explain what it has to do with the action in the rest of the poem. Part of the meaning of the poem comes from the speaker's zest for details, which he possesses even in this setting. The attitude is expressed in the tone of voice and in details such as the fantails embroidered on the sheet. Why notice the embroidery now? These little, illuminated details nevertheless come to the narrator's attention in the flow of the practical tasks. It's the bright, unillusioned sufficiency of all this together that makes the narrator say "Let be be finale of seem." All of which can be explained to someone, but doesn’t guarantee that they will see it for themselves. This experiment reveals two things: 1) how Stevens’ poems are interrelated, and 2) how even though they are interrelated the individual poem makes a very vigorous claim--it demands that we learn to think in its idiom.

From Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, and The Whole of Harmonium. Archon Books. Copyright © 1991


Title Kia Penso: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kia Penso Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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