From What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World
September 12, 2012
“Wallace Stevens in the World”
My nineteenth birthday was also the birthday of one of my college friends. I went to an early class in logic that morning. I think we were reading Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, because when I got back to my room a group of my friends was there with several bottles of champagn and I remember that in the ensuing hilarity there was much speculation about the comic possibilities in the title of that treatise. My friend Tom had been to a class—it was a Catholic men’s college, Saint Mary’s—that somehow involved the Latin names for various illicit sexual positions, coitus reservatus, coitus interrupus, coitus inter femores, and so on, which was the source of a lot of buffoonery that blended nicely into the subject of posterior analytics, and at some point in the proceedings one of the more advanced of us got out the volume of Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems in its handsome soft blue dust jacket and read “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” I had never heard the poem before and it seemed to me supremely delicious. It was march in California, high spring, the hills still green, with grazing cattle in them, plum trees in blossom, the olive trees around the campus whitening whenever a breeze shook them, and after a while a group of us was marching through the field full of mustard flowers and wild radish in the back of the dormitory, banging on pans with spoons and strumming tennis rackets and chanting out the poem, or at least the first stanza of it, which I find now is what I still have in memory:
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kithen 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 the finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
It is probably significant that I don’t have the second stanza by heart. I don’t know if I took in the fact that the poem was a propositions about behavior at a funeral. If I did, it could only have seemed to me that morning and afternoon immensely droll. I was a sophomore. I read it as a sophomore poem. The year before in my freshman year—I make this confession publicly—I had taped above my desk along with other immortal lines a little poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that went something like this:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
I had by the following year understood that it was deeply uncool to have lines of Millay adorning one’s room and replaced them with something appropriately gloomy by Jean-Paul Sartre, but at the time I took Stevens’s line in more or less the same spirit as Millay’s, as permission to have fun, to live in the spirit of comedy. I see now that they were in fact probably written out of the same anti-Victorian spirit of the 1920s. They may even have been written in the same year, and the poem is mor or less permanently associated for me with that bibulous and raucous first experience of it. …