RON SMITH | Red Guitar No. 3
The Only Emperor
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk
About a year ago I taught a poem to a five-year-old. That is, I recited a poem to him a few times and he memorized it. I was entertaining him, trying to delight and divert him with words. Delighted he was. And diverted, mainly from climbing on the furniture. The first couple of times I said the poem he stood very still, watching my lips. After that, he was pleased to supply the refrain. And pretty soon he had it down, the whole sixteen-line poem. He could recite it nearly verbatim—even while climbing on the back of the sofa.
He learned the poem because he liked the way it sounded. He learned it accidentally, the way I had learned it in my teens. Here’s the poem:
I didn’t study it in a class. I just read it out loud to myself. And read it and read it.
For a long time now, I’ve loved saying that poem over and over. Just saying it. I love the listen-up-now of its first syllable, the roll of that anapest in its first line and how it sets up later anapests. I love the mock-finicky /i/ assonance that carries past the end of the second line, the outrageous /k/ cacophony in the third—the way the whole thing wields and mocks power, the way it commands and pokes fun at commanding. And right away it’s a feast of conjured images—the rippling muscles of forearms, kitchen clatter, coy swish of dresses, fresh flowers and fresh faces blurring past. I love that theatrical, abstract, anthimeric imperative about being and seeming. And I love the cryptic refrain, the tease and insistence of that sweeping statement. Even in 1922 when the poem was new and people got right away that men who rolled cigars by hand would have well-developed forearms, the first stanza baffled as much as it bustled (“concupiscent curds”?). It’s a deliberately mystifying poem, but it’s clearly full of energy, full of life.
Of course, there are the horny feet. Most readers understand right away there’s a dead woman in the bedroom, that her face is to be covered by a sheet too brief to cover all of her poor, dead self. But, who is that callous, pompous bastard who doesn’t care if her feet stick out, who actually thinks they are welcome emblems of her deadness? And is this a party or a funeral or what?
Who cares: Say it again. Declaim it. It invites and thrives on oratorical force.
Like music, poetry’s meant to be grasped before it’s understood, to affect before it means. The best poems mean through dumb pleasure, like old medallions to the thumb, as Archibald MacLeish said. The author of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” the great Wallace Stevens, said himself, “A poem need not have a meaning and, like most things in nature often does not have.”
Of course, having no meaning and having no immediately obvious meaning are not the same thing. Most poetry appeals eventually to the intellect, but it does so indirectly, through the senses and through what T.S. Eliot called the auditory imagination.
Whatever else “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” intends, it intends pleasure. Whatever else it does, it celebrates. Even a five-year-old can perceive that.
Most days, poetry is for me pure pleasure. People often sing when they’re happy. When I’m happy, I say poems over and over to myself—and sometimes to anybody who happens to be near. I do it for the sheer joy of the words and sometimes to share that joy. I say poems like A.E. Stallings’s recent “Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther.” That little thing begins,
Last summer I said those four lines over and over, just to enjoy the sounds, the life in the sounds, the happy energy in the sounds. I’m especially delighted by the oooo assonance of “tunes” and “booze” and “spoons.” From time to time I chant Leigh Hunt’s unforgettable, sentimental “Rondeau”:
And I’ve infected small and large audiences, old and young, with Richard Armour’s “Going to Extremes,” in which twelve words relieve a well-known frustration with a delicious surprise of onomatopoeia:
Soon, alas, plastic squeeze bottles will render obsolete this only Armour piece anyone is likely to memorize.
There are those little verbal machines, limericks, that I love to hear click and whirr:
And there’s Walt Kelly’s little Lovelace-ian festival of alliteration and rhyme:
But, really, do we want to call this stuff poetry? These mere verses? Do we really want people to admire that Jenny-kissed-me thing, a piece Anthony Burgess’s fictional poet Enderby remembered as sadly summing up an entire career? Humiliated Enderby remembered it when he learned that he himself had been referred to as a “minor poet.” Who are some “minor poets”? There’s Leigh Hunt, he thought, “whom Jenny kissed.”
Is it anti-intellectual to read poetry simply for pleasure? Is it childish? When MacLeish said that “A poem should not mean / But be,” he did so in a mischievously didactic poem, a poem that asserted its meaning in nearly every stanza. (The poem’s meaning is that poems shouldn't have meaning.)
Little children know that words dance with words, that words dance with things. They know instinctively that occasion demands commemoration, that high spirits require a ceremony of language.
Not long after our son learned to talk, I heard him coming down the steps of the apartment with a phrase that perfectly matched the clomping pace of his little legs. “Chicken shit, chicken shit,” he said as his feet thumped down—a phrase a neighbor had uttered in our living room only the day before and which, though he didn’t understand it, within twenty-four hours he had found a use for. Some time later, while we were driving, he casually referred to “the obeedopes.” “What are obeedopes,” I asked. “You know,” he said, pointing to the windshield wipers and then mimicking their motion: “Obeedope, obeedope.” This useful word remains in our family. The first and third syllables are stressed. Like “chicken shit,” it’s a Cretic foot (stress, unstress, stress).
Children are born poets, alert on the one hand to words as handles or markers for things and on the other to the separate, delightful thingyness of words themselves.
Seamus Heaney in his book of essays Finders Keepers speaks of poetry as “a kind of free love between the auditory imagination and the unharnessed intelligence.” Extending this figure, we’re obliged to see dour poetry critics as sex researchers, unsmiling Kinseys clinically examining, without enjoying, a primal act of pleasure and fecundity.
To children and adults I recommend saying “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” over and over without trying to understand it. Meaning? Sure, it has meaning, but it’s more important to feel the meaning than to think it.
When you glance through the critical literature about this poem, you get the impression it’s a very grim piece. The high spirits of the narrator are often interpreted by academics as sneering cynicism or as something like Bewick Finzer’s brilliance of despair.
Even so profound and subtle a critic as Helen Vendler can miss the sheer fun of Stevens’s poem. Her remarks about it in The Columbia History of American Poetry focus on “harsh and unpalatable experiences,” “the bitter moment of choosing life over death, at a time when life seems particularly lonely, self-serving, lustful, and sordid.” Referring to those fantails on the pitifully short sheet, Vendler says that in this poem “Art is exposed as too scanty in its powers to cover up death.”
But the poem itself is art, and art of a particularly gaudy (Stevens’s word) kind. It aims not to cover up death, which would be the aim, yes, in Stevens’s opinion, of much previous art, but to face it honestly and to celebrate—yes, celebrate—its effects and consequences. Stevens’s sly epicurean intelligence knows that one meaning of the word gaudy is an annual celebration or banquet held at certain British universities. One thing the poem clearly is is a brightly colored, showily decorated celebration.
The speaker orchestrates the action. Or does he? He orders townspeople—at least one virile man and “wenches” and boys and, clearly, others—to make food, fetch flowers, prepare the body for viewing and burial. To gather casually but purposefully. To do and enjoy doing. Do the characters, the townspeople, hear him, though? Is he merely pretending to command the inevitable, the customary? Certainly his diction and philosophy imply significance the community would find incomprehensible or unacceptable. He is a kind of ghost host, a hovering, invisible master of ceremonies. To the extent that the characters even consider the significance of this quite ordinary occasion, surely they see it in a light different from that of the poem’s speaker. The characters are no doubt Christians who see themselves as helping their sister into the Beyond. But their actions have a significance their minds refuse or simply fail to comprehend. The poem’s exuberant speaker pretends to make them aware of this other, deeper significance.
The poem has a serious meaning but not a solemn one. Vendler says that “In choosing to ‘let the lamp affix its beam,’ as in a morgue, . . . Stevens makes his momentous choice for reality over appearance.”
If, in Vendler’s equation, death equals reality and life equals mere appearance, I think she’s wrong. The party in the dead woman’s home, the rural funeral, the celebration it amounts to—these are no less real than the corpse in the bedroom. If I’m right that both life and death are equally real in this poem and to its speaker, then, what is the “be” and what is the “seem”? Vendler, one could argue, has made the same error that the poem’s partiers make, only in reverse. It’s likely the characters see death as unreal, as merely another form of life, and this is the error the boisterous narrator urges them to avoid.
Stevens’s insistence on the reality of death is well established in his prose and other poems. His “be” is death. His “seem” is therefore life? No. Stevens’s “seem” is life only in the sense of eternal, ongoing life. That’s the illusion. “Let be be finale of seem” means something like “Let yourself accept the fact that consciousness and identity end with biological death.” To deny death’s solid reality, Stevens believes, is to lie to oneself. Of course, Christian belief in the afterlife is one way to do this.
But another way to do it is through the notoriously anti-Christian beliefs of American Transcendentalism. Whitman (philosophically a Transcendentalist even if in some ways a Realist) said it best in Section 6 of “Song of Myself”:
No, says the post-Darwinian Stevens, the child of naturalism and skepticism. But, yes, he also says. This yes comes from Stevens the post-spiritualist hedonist, the inheritor of a more metaphysically radical carpe diem than the Cavalier poets conceived. Yes, that is, to Whitman’s hedonism, his energy, yes to the sweep of his vision, his embracing of the physical.
In my encounters with “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” I hear the voice of Whitman. Or, to be more precise, I hear an echo of that voice, part parody, part homage. Homage for the hedonist Whitman who could, like Stevens, “make widows wince,” parody of the Whitman who refused to acknowledge death’s reality. In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” our traditional rites are reinterpreted and our legs are pulled by a speaker in a Whitman costume.
In Victorian America, Whitman intended to shock when he insisted we “. . . make short account of neuters and geldings, and favor / men and women fully equipt.” His persona was omniscient, populist, and sensually ravenous:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Stevens’s Emperor of Ice-Cream seems unknowingly incarnated in that robust roller of phallic cigars, that Whitmanian working man who will dole out the emblem of festivity, ice-cream, who unwittingly stands for the archetypal celebration of sex. He will fill yonic cups with revelry’s treats. He will act, he will not speak.
Stevens’s exhorter sees the Emperor in the laborer. The speaker is Whitman sheared by Darwinian naturalism; he is also Whitman charged with Freudian irony. The old lady’s trotters are horny now only in the sad, ultimate repression of death.
The ideal Stevens reader must feel all this without actually conceptualizing it.
The poem explodes with life, implying that Whitman was right to celebrate the physical, the sensual. Critics who deny this in the poem take its celebration as a sham, the evoked pleasure as an illusion. They read “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” as a kind of Lord of the Flies.
It’s true that the poem implies that Whitman was wrong to believe in an afterlife. But Stevens had already demonstrated that loss of afterlife can produce sensuous abundance and piercing beauty rather than emptiness, horror, despair. The speaker of his lush 1915 meditation “Sunday Morning” is, like the one in the later poem, apparently omniscient, sometimes intimate, yet strangely removed. By a kind of telepathy, he teaches his elegant, discontented protagonist that “Death is the mother of beauty.” “Sunday Morning” imagines and perhaps predicts a return to paganism, a modern, enlightened, orgiastic physicalism:
In the later “Emperor of Ice-Cream,” Stevens conceives of the homely funeral as a fertility rite. His speaker’s exuberance can be explained as partly joy in the pagan celebration, partly perverse glee in the irony that these Christians do not know they’re performing a pagan rite.
In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” death is not the mother of beauty, he’s the father of parties. The Emperor is not life, despite that emblem of life, ice-cream. The Emperor is also not death, despite ice-cream’s archetypal coldness. The Emperor is Life-in-the-Face-of-Death, intensification of life because of death.
The quite literal festivities of a wake embody the poet’s deepest belief: Because this is the only life you’re going to get, because the finale is death—yes, seize the day. Celebrate the old lady. But don’t pretend she’s not dead. Her death gives the party its life. But, again, why the Freudian cigar man filling female cavities? Why wenches and boys? Because as Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois will say, the opposite of death is desire, carnal desire—at least in Williams’s greatest play and in this poem. Which is to say, the opposite of death is vitality. Vulgar vitality? Yes, and all the more vital for its vulgarity.
So it’s not a light-weight, frivolous poem at all, even if its appeal to the ear is elemental and immediate, more like that of music than of the literature of ideas. The phrase “auditory imagination” was coined by T.S. Eliot to denote “the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to an origin and bringing something back . . . fusing the most ancient and most civilized mentalities.”
But in these touchy, doctrinaire times, we can imagine another objection. Why would you want to teach a kid a poem that denies the afterlife and endorses hedonism? I think we can dismiss this objection. It’s like objecting to Halloween because of its pagan significance, its pagan essence.
As Thoreau said, “The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.” Pleasure first, learning after. Play when you’re young, work when you’re older. Nobody took poetry more seriously than Stevens and his contemporary Robert Frost, but both of those poets knew, as Frost said, that poetry was serious play.
Camus wrote, “One must not wish first to understand and then to feel.” If my five-year-old whom the Emperor kept off the furniture for an hour understood only that poems are a hoot, we—Stevens and I—did a good thing. Of course, more importantly, the boy felt. He intuited the presence of art’s Janus, its indispensable god of reverence and irreverence. He sensed the affective and cognitive acrobatics of language. He felt what Heaney calls “the vitality and insouciance of lyric poetry.” He felt poetry’s power.
I said earlier that he learned the poem almost verbatim. Surprisingly, he had no problem with “bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds”; he enunciated that perfectly. His only mistake, and one that I have never drawn his attention to, continues to be in the first line. He says, “Call the roller of big skidars . . . .” I probably shouldn’t find that as cute as I do. But I certainly don’t want the kid to be thinking about cigars. Smoking is a habit I hope he’ll never take up.