Wallace Stevens: the Emperor of Ice Cream

Read The Poem

What is so great about this poem is the way it feels in your mouth when read aloud (try it!) and the way it delights the senses–all the while evading much in the way of prosaic meaning. Yet despite its lack of solid, linear, non-symbolic meaning, the poem is profoundly assertive. Rather than examine the lush (concupiscent, perhaps?) language elements of this poem, I would like to take a moment to talk about the line breaks, and how the few artificially broken lines in the poem serve to strengthen the simultaneous sense of certainty and delight.

The first is:

The muscular one, and bid him whip /
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

These lines, and the one above it, are part of a command, which is necessarily declamatory. While most of the breaks in this poem fall on caesuras–like commas and periods–this more deliberate break has a deliberate effect: suspense. What will the muscular roller of big cigars whip? Apparently nothing more brutal or kinky than the makings of ice cream. But momentarily, our mind gets pushed out on that ledge.

Rather than create ambiguity, line breaks can also serve to reinforce a (false) sense of certainty about objects the poet refers to:

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress /
As they are used to wear …

Take from the dresser of deal, /
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet /
On which …

here “such dress” and “that sheet” combined with, again, the structure of a command, gives us an artificial sense that we know what the speaker is talking about. You know–that sheet. And yet, we do not. “Such” could mean “so much” as well as “that type of”–both meanings that somehow imply we know what the speaker is talking about already. This device–of declaiming in such a way as to imply the reader is inside the experience–can be a very powerful way to create certainty and ambiguity at the same time. The result is pleasure, and a more interesting poem. The line breaks serve to reinforce this, by giving great weight to the objects themselves.

Other lines build certainty through the classic device of rhyme:

If her horny feet protrude, they come /
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Ultimately, the poem works to bring a tremendous amount of energy of declamation, certainty, perhaps even pomp and circumstance–to a collection of images and ideas that are not logically sound. The simultaneous self-assurance of the speakers voice, reinforced by line breaks and other devices, combined with the tremendous amount of strangeness in this poem, makes it a highly energetic and impactful work.

What is so great about this poet is his ability to bring tremendous strangeness and tremendous certainty together in many of his works. Ultimately, Stevens seems to have studied, understood, and reproduced a great deal of art that does not necessarily have great prosaic meaning. Yet it does mean something to the poetic mind, where it works and dwells and delights–time and again, read after read.