Thursday, April 17, 2008

Poem in Your Pocket Day

I've got a poem in my pocket. Do you? Mine is my favorite poem.

THE EMPEROR OF ICE-CREAM

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 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.

--Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens wrote this poem before he took the job he would hold for most of his life, as Vice President of The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. I love it because it's so unyielding, and at the same time, inviting. Its cadence and rhyme are so appealing, but the meaning of the poem, in so far as it exists, is obviously withheld. Stevens believed that "things that have their origins in the imagination or in the emotions often take on a form that is ambiguous or uncertain. It is not possible to attach a single, rational meaning to such things without destroying the imaginative or the emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them that is why poets do not like to explain." I think this sums up exactly why it's been so hard for me to write about poetry these past few weeks -- I've been sitting here trying to explain something that will be better left alone.

In that spirit, rather than breakdown what's happening in this poem, I'll say that Stevens was the anti-Keats, in that he did much of his work later in life, while working a "day job" (albeit a high-paying one and one he kept despite offers to teach at Harvard). He didn't disappear into himself, or burnout in an ecstatic or artistic flourish. He was brilliant, but the sense I get is that it was a quiet brilliance, one that allowed for more than himself and his art in his life. When I was trying to be a writer, he was an idol of mine, and he serves as inspiration for everyone who thinks it's possible to be an artist and a lawyer, or a writer and a businessman.

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