Last quarter, one of my astute undergraduate Reading Poetry students, Michael Ben Silva, turned in a midterm essay called “The Essential Gaudiness of Poetry: On the Difficulties of Understanding and Reciting ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream.’” The whole essay was memorable and well-done, but my favorite among the points he made was as follows:

“A survey of the most commonly quoted pieces of writing on Stevens and this poem reveals an historical approach to explicating ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ that has flooded the mythos surrounding the poem with ascribed traditions and settings. While it is generally accepted that the narrative of the poem is the commotion surrounding the wake for a woman who has recently died, many suggestions have been made as to the inspiration for the scene. Elizabeth Bishop is often cited as having vehemently placed the poem in Key West, with all manner of probably apocryphal stories attached—one tenacious but rare claim asserts that it is customary in Key West to serve ice cream at wakes.[i] Outside of writing on Elizabeth Bishop and ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream,’ this supposed tradition cannot be found. There is a tendency then, it seems, to overanalyze this poem, even to invent meaning when the language is inscrutable.”

Either this ice-cream-at-Key-West-funerals thing is a tradition that does not actually exist outside the scholarship on this poem, in which case we can have a conversation about the tendency of readers—particularly authoritative readers—to find meaning even when they have to invent it themselves.

Or the serving of ice cream is in fact a genuine tradition at funerals in Key West.

Either way, it feels like we really should get this cleared up. Anybody know? Let the lamp affix its beam on the answer.

[i] Bishop, Elizabeth, and George Monteiro. Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1996. 145-47. Print.

Originally Published: April 19th, 2012

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...