The Emperor of Ice-Cream

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.

Source: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1982)

Writing Ideas

  1. Stevens’s poem uses ice cream to suggest ideas of transience, luxury, life, and death. Choose a food and develop a list of associations connected to it. Like Stevens, try to link sense associations (ice cream is cold) to larger abstractions (death is cold). Use your list as the starting place for a poem that creates a symbolic order around your chosen food.
  2. As Austin Allen notes in his poem guide, “The Emperor of Ice Cream” takes place in two stanzas and two contrasting “rooms.” Take two different rooms within the same building and write a stanza for each. As Stevens does in this poem, try to convey the feeling of each room through images rather than narration.
  3. Circle all the nouns from this poem and use them to write a new poem. Keep the same order (so your poem’s first nouns would also be “roller” and “cigars”).

Discussion Questions

  1. Stevens once wrote, “A new meaning is the equivalent of a new word.” How does “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” suggest new meanings in old words? Circle all the words that read strangely to you. Think about how Stevens uses shifts in register, modes of address, and syntactical placement to create estranging effects and the purpose of such defamiliarizing tactics and techniques.
  2. The poem is written in the imperative mode: as critic Helen Vendler noted, it seems to be a list of commands from an “unknown master of ceremonies.” Try rewriting Stevens’s poem from a first-person perspective, or choose one of the characters in the poem and write the scenes from theirs. What is lost and gained in shifting points of view? What does Stevens achieve by using an impersonal, even imperial, mode of address like the imperative?
  3. Spend a few minutes free-writing on the possible meanings of the puzzling aphorism, “Let be be finale of seem.” What kind of dissonance does the line create, for you and for the poem? How does the line resonate with the first stanza and the next line (think about aural effects or associations as well semantic meaning)? Compare it to the next stanza’s penultimate line—what is the effect of the clustered rhymes between seem-cream-beam?

Teaching Tips

  1. Have your students talk about their expectations of a poem titled “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” before they even read it. What kind of poem do they think they’ll encounter? What language, images, or meanings do they expect to confront? After students have read the poem, talk about how meanings and expectations generated by the title were confirmed or contradicted by the poem itself. Have this open onto a larger conversation about the function of titles and titling: what relationships exist between titles and poems? What do your students think about when they title their own poems? Stevens is a notoriously good titler. Ask students to find five Stevens titles on this website or by looking through anthologies or Stevens’s Collected Poems (but they shouldn’t read the poems yet). Have them present their titles as small groups and lead the class in a discussion about what drew them to the title, what is suggestive or strange about it, and what kind of poem they think it might caption or cue. As a final creative exercise, the class could vote on their favorite title and use it as a prompt for their own poems. Then, you might project the real Stevens poem and discuss its relationship to its title.
  2. Before reading Austin Allen’s illuminating poem guide, talk about what might be going on in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Ask students basic questions like: where is the poem set? What is happening? Why? Ask them to think of different strategies to make sense of the dense and confusing language: they might try to visually represent the poem by drawing its characters and incidents, or they might try to gloss its language by defining terms and hunting down allusions. After they’ve come up with their own answers, read Austin Allen’s poem guide (which includes readings by other critics of the poem as well). Are there other ways to read Stevens’s poem? What kinds of insight and/or meaning do different reading strategies yield?
More Poems by Wallace Stevens