In the Ring, Gloves Up

I’m troubled by the opacity of poetry.  When I come across a poem I can’t understand, I give it a closer read.  If I still can’t understand it, I slam the book shut and mutter, “What the hell was THAT about?”

I hate feeling outsmarted by a poet. Who do these poets think they are anyway?  Do they think they’re better than the rest of us?

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I sometimes read poetry to my kids at the dinner table.  I try anything to tempt them, and I find catchy titles work best.  Recently I came across “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens.  Perfect, I thought.  What kid wouldn’t want to hear a poem about ice cream?  So I read it aloud:

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.

I finished the last line of the poem, and looked up at my kids.  They stared at me with their mouths open.  I stared back at them.  I had no idea what to say, so I tried honesty: “I have no idea what that poem was about.  Do you?”  They stabbed chicken nuggets with their forks, and that was the end of the discussion.  A few moments later, my daughter said, “I like CHOC-o-late ice cream!”

That poem has nagged at me for weeks.  I had stepped into the ring with Wallace Stevens, and he had knocked me out with one punch.  When I was ready for round two, what did I do?  Why, I turned to Google, of course.  Within seconds, I found sweet relief: The poem is about a wake for a deceased woman.  The Cummings Study Guide offers this summary:

The time is the early 20th Century. (The poem was published in 1922). The place is the residence of a deceased woman in an American city. It is uncertain whether the residence is a house or an apartment. Apparently people of Latin-American ancestry live in the neighborhood and roll cigars (wrap cured tobacco in a cigar leaf) to earn money. The narrator (speaker/persona) calls for a muscular cigar roller to make ice cream to be served to visitors attending the wake (viewing) for the deceased woman. In earlier times, a wake frequently took place in the home of the deceased. Besides paying their last respects to the dead person, visitors often ate, drank, and told stories. Thus, a wake was sometimes a festive occasion. In “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” the narrator tells what will happen before and during the wake. There will be the ice cream, and men from the neighborhood will bring flowers. The male and female visitors will probably flirt and make eyes. The dead woman will lie in her bedroom under a bedsheet that covers her face and body but exposes her callused feet. The visitors will occupy themselves mainly with socializing and having fun, not with mourning the loss of a neighbor.*

Of course there’s much more beyond the poem’s literal interpretation:  Life (represented in the first stanza).  Death (represented in the second stanza).  What shall be, shall be.  Life is fleeting, so enjoy it while it lasts… With the help of an online dictionary and several accomplished bloggers, I finally understand “The Emperor of Ice Cream”.

So how do I feel about opaque poetry now?  I’ve decided an opaque poem is like a painting I don’t enjoy or a song lyric I don’t understand:  Although I may not like it, I’m happy that others(with superior intellect) do.  After all, it is art, the very essence of human nature.

Still not buying what I’m selling?  There’s one more benefit to reading an opaque poem:  a sense of satisfaction that comes from having to work a little harder for that “Aha!” moment.  Doesn’t it feel good?  Isn’t it like solving an algebra problem, or finishing a crossword puzzle?  We must take our small victories anywhere we can get them.  So stand up, and get ready for the next round.


* If you want  to take a deeper dive, check out this link:




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