October 2, 2014
Who or what is “the emperor of ice-cream”? Generations of undergraduates have been made to wonder since WALLACE STEVENS (1879–1955), the Hartford insurance executive and modernist doyen, published his poem of that name in 1922. In common with other trademark Stevens efforts — “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” say, or “The Idea of Order at Key West” — the method is phenomenological, a detail-heavy and mostly imperative-mood meditation on the fact of consciousness, especially the imaginative play that constructs a world available to experience.
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.
Neither self nor world is stable (who, exactly, is spreading the sheet?) but poetry navigates a region of mind where this fact is embraced, if not resolved, the place where we might “Let be be finale of seem.” Stevens’s lyrical vision was influenced by painters such as Cezanne and Klee, and he in turn influenced painters: in the 1970s David Hockney produced a series of etchings based on his poem “The Man With the Blue Guitar,” itself rooted in the work of Picasso. A noted late bloomer, Stevens led what is now celebrated as a quiet personal life: though he once reportedly took a swing at Ernest Hemingway during a Key West fracas, he refused a post at Harvard after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 in order to stay in Hartford. Maybe the citizens of that dull burg better appreciated that a sidewalk ice-cream monarch is “the only emperor” in this fallen realm of ours.
READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874–1883).