Thoughts on “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens

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.
(text thanks to Poem Hunter.)
This is one of my favorite poems I discovered in college–it set my world on fire and lit up all new avenues of thinking. (I also discussed it, badly, on a midterm I wound up having to re-take because I was so tired that nothing I wrote came out right. Luckily the professor was generous and allowed for a mulligan.) I like everything about this poem–the subtle rhymes, the picture Stevens chooses the present and, of course, the idea of an emperor of ice cream. It’s electric.
Some poems you can dissect each line and find something there. That might be true here but I think this poem is best served in one big chunk (or scoop if you prefer an extended metaphor). Yes, the individual lines are fascinating. But doesn’t the over-arching imagery makes so much more sense when taken as a whole?