Wallace Stevens: Emperor of the Enigmatic

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Essay —

Wallace Stevens:

The Emperor of the Enigmatic


The poet Mark Strand has said that Wallace Stevens is “one of the most admired American poets of the twentieth century,” but at the same time, one of “the least understood.” Perhaps that is because Wallace Stevens wrote some of the most willfully obscure poems of the twentieth century.

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.


For years, probably decades, I have read this poem without the first glimmer of recognition. Who would? “Let be be finale of seem.” OK, but what’s that mean? “seem” is a state of perception. “be” is existential. “be” is always the precondition of “seem” since you can’t characterize something until you acknowledge first that it exists. The poem makes no sense. It has a cute title which is reiterated at the end of each stanza, but, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland CA, “There is no there there.” When you have to turn to Gertrude Stein to make sense of things, you know you have waded into some deep water.

So who is this Wallace Stevens who writes in riddles? He was born in 1879 in Buck County PA., went to Harvard, wrote for and edited the Harvard Advocate, got a law degree, got married, and became a practicing lawyer, and ultimately corporate counsel for The Hartford Insurance Co. I think this thumbnail biography explains it all. Take the obscurity inherent in legal writing, cross it with the language of an air-tight insurance policy, and presto you have Wallace Stevens’s poetry.

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” remained a mystery to me until I encountered an explanation by Helen Vendler in an essay entitled “Steven’s Secrecies.” Critics generally don’t know how to explain Steven’s penchant for willful obscurity, so they find words to make it sound artistic. Mark Strand calls it “wordplay.” Donald Hall says Steven’s verse has “a Frenchified elegance,” whatever that means. Harold Bloom characterizes Stevens by quoting him: he makes “the visible a little hard/ To see.”

So what does Helen Vendler do to make sense of this Ice-Cream Emperor? She posits any conceivable circumstance, no matter how far fetched, which would make sense of most of the words of the poem.

I went, as a neighbor, to a house to help lay out the corpse of an old woman who had died alone; I was helping to prepare for the home wake. I entered, familiarly, not by the front door but by the kitchen door. I was shocked and repelled as I went into the kitchen by the disorderly festival going on inside: a big muscular neighbor who worked at the cigar-factory had been called in to crank the ice-cream machine, various neighbors had sent over their scullery-girls to help out and their yard-boys bearing newspaper-wrapped flowers from their yards to decorate the house and the bier: the scullery-girls were taking advantage of the occasion to dawdle around the kitchen and flirt with the yard-boys, and they were all waiting around to have a taste of the ice cream when it was finished. It all seemed to me crude and boisterous and squalid and unfeeling in the house of the dead – all that appetite, all that concupiscence.

Then I left the sexuality and gluttony of the kitchen, and went in to the death in the bedroom. The corpse of the old woman was lying exposed on the bed. My first impulse was to find a sheet to cover the corpse; I went to the cheap old pine dresser, but it was hard to get the sheet out of it because each of the three drawers was lacking a drawer-pull; she must have been too infirm to get to the store to get new glass knobs. But I got a sheet out, noticing that she had hand-embroidered a fantail border on it; she wanted to make it beautiful, even though she was so poor that she made her own sheets, and cut them as minimally as she could so as to get as many as possible out of a length of cloth. She cut them so short, in fact, that when I pulled the sheet up far enough to cover her face, it was too short to cover her feet. It was almost worse to have to look at her old calloused feet than to look at her face; somehow her feet were more dead, more mute, than her face had been

She is dead, and the fact cannot be hidden by any sheet. What remains after death, in the cold light of reality, is life — all of that life, with its coarse muscularity and crude hunger and greedy concupiscence, that is going on in the kitchen. The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau — the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom. Life offers no other tableaus of reality, once we pierce beneath appearances.

The explanation is four times longer than the poem! You really have to take your hat off to the lady critic’s creativity, but should the reader have to go to this extreme to make sense of a poem which should be explaining itself? Is willful obscurity what we have come to expect from our most articulate citizens? I don’t think so.

The academic community at large puzzled over this poem for decades before decoding it. Is that really what poetry should be doing? If poetry is only good in so far as it is obscure, then surly there are tens of thousands of office memos which have been unjustly tossed aside. I’m as much a fan of mysteries as the next guy, but I think poetry has enough trouble without adding “intentional obfuscation” to its list of crimes. What is added by it? Why should any poem be lauded for not telling us what it means? Poetry is supposed to be a form of communication. Isn’t it? Poetry illuminates the remote reaches of human experience. It makes life better. So shouldn’t we have a right to expect a poem to be at least as clear as an insurance policy?

Mark Strand has had to go through similar contortions to make sense of another Wallace Stevens poem “Fabliau of Florida.”

Here is the poem.

Fabliau of Florida

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.


According to Mark Strand, the poem makes sense when you realize that the word “Barque” should be understood as “bark” and that the animal barking is — naturally — a poet. Thus, according to Strand, the “’Barque of phosphor’ ceases to be simply a boat shining in moonlight. It becomes a luminous cry, and represents the transformation of raw utterance into polished speech.” Did you follow that? Neither did I.

Strand goes on to explain that the last word of the poem, “surf” is to be read “serf” and that the serf involved is — naturally — the poet “who both serves and serves up poetry.” Poppycock.

This reading reminds me of the sophomore who explained “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by suggesting that Santa, too full of cider and hot chocolate, landed his sleigh “Between the woods and frozen lake” to take a leak on “The darkest evening of the year.” Fun, but it reduces a fine poem to a parody of experience, not an experience in itself.

I am not suggesting that the only good poem is a plain unvarnished poem, but I am suggesting that the varnish needs to dress up the goods in some worthwhile way. Words that obscure thought are antithetical to what poetry is supposed to be doing. I believe that Mark Strand was dragged into this mire by a poet who is simply unwilling to use his talent to give voice to some essence of human experience, but instead has gotten hung up on words for their own sake as if the enigmatic is necessarily profound.

Ultimately, I think my quarrel with Wallace Stevens is deeply philosophical. I believe in the power of poetry to flood our lives with profound insight, and, occasionally, some of Wallace Steven’s poems fulfill that obligation. I just don’t believe that “Anything is beautiful if you say it is.”