My nineteenth birthday was also the birthday of one of my college friends. I went to an early class in logic that morning. I think we were reading Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, because when I got back to my room a group of my friends was there with several bottles of champagne and I remember that in the ensuing hilarity there was much speculation about the comic possibilities in the title of that treatise. My friend Tom had been to a class—it was a Catholic men’s college, Saint Mary’s—that somehow involved the Latin names for various illicit sexual positions, coitus reservatus, coitus interruptus, coitus inter femores, and so on, which was also the source of a lot of buffoonery that blended nicely into the subject of posterior analytics, and at some point in the proceedings one of the more advanced of us got out the volume of Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems in its handsome soft blue dust jacket and read “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” I had never heard the poem before and it seemed to me supremely delicious. It was March in California, high spring, the hills still green, with grazing cattle in them, plum trees in blossom, the olive trees around the campus whitening whenever a breeze shook them, and after a while a group of us was marching through the field full of mustard flowers and wild radish in the back of the dormitory, banging on pans with spoons and strumming tennis rackets and chanting out the poem, or at least the first stanza of it, which I find now is what I still have in memory:

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 the finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

It is probably significant that I don’t have the second stanza by heart. I don’t know if I took in the fact that the poem was a proposition about behavior at a funeral. If I did, it could only have seemed to me that morning and afternoon immensely droll. I was a sophomore. I read it as a sophomore poem. The year before in my freshman year—I make this confession publicly—I had taped above my desk along with other immortal lines a little poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that went something like this:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

I had by the following year understood that it was deeply uncool to have lines of Millay adorning one’s room and replaced them with something appropriately gloomy by Jean-Paul Sartre, but at that time I took Stevens’s line in more or less the same spirit as Millay’s, as permission to have fun, to live in the spirit of comedy. I see now that they were in fact probably written out of the same anti-Victorian spirit in the 1920s. They may even have been written in the same year, and the poem is more or less permanently associated for me with that bibulous and raucous first experience of it. I don’t remember for sure what if anything I knew about Wallace Stevens except that he was a modern poet.

I want to come back to “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” but let me say a word about coming across a couple of other Stevens poems that complicated my understanding of it. In the fall after the spring I have been describing, a group of us, eight, I think, quadruple dating, were on our way to dinner and a movie and couldn’t decide where we wanted to go or what we wanted to see, and the driver, in a moment of inspiration, said, “Oh, the hell with it, let’s go to Carmel and run on the beach.” It was a three-hour drive then from Berkeley to Carmel. We stopped for sandwiches and wine; we had very little money, so there was no question of staying in a motel, which meant sleeping on the beach if we didn’t drive back in the middle of the night; people had people to notify if they were going to stay out all night; one woman had a father whom we all hated, an amazingly unpleasant man who actually made his living by running a lab that tested for venereal disease and who insisted on testing his daughters regularly, and she was quite worried about getting away with a very late night, which made the rest of us feel appealingly reckless. I don’t remember exactly who was there. The driver was a year ahead of me in school, famously smart, a philosophy major who at the end of his senior year read a French novel about Dien Bien Phu and, quoting Nietzsche on the true aristocrat, enlisted in a branch of the service I’d never heard of called Special Forces where he claimed he would learn to parachute, ski cross-country, and fight bare-handed in jungles in places like Annam and Cochin China, which was now called Vietnam. His girlfriend was from the Philippines, extremely beautiful, the daughter of some kind of politician, we understood, and a French major. It was she who produced the white Vintage paperback volume of Wallace Stevens at some point in the drive and suggested that we take turns reading the stanzas of “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” I was stunned by the poem. I am still stunned by the poem. After we had read around and gotten over the shock and novelty of the way the adjectives play over and transform the surface of the poem, and after we had read a few others by Stevens, and other books were produced and other poems read, the conversation moved on, but I got my hands on Marie’s Stevens and when we arrived in Carmel and got some more wine and watched the sun set over Carmel Bay in a light rain, I suggested we read the poem again, which we did, to humor me, I think, while the last light smoldered on the horizon. Then we tried to build a fire on the beach, but the rain turned into a lashing Pacific storm and we spent the night, quite wet, eight of us crammed into the car in the parking lot, laughing a lot—it was very sexy as I remember—and making jokes about cars and autoeroticism. I will start to feel like Kinbote, the lunatic annotator of other people’s poems with incidents from his own life in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, if I tell you the story of the lives of each of the people in the car. Marie, who returned to the Philippines and who, I know, had two children and whose spine was badly injured when she was struck by a car; Killpack, who did go to Vietnam and then army intelligence toward the end of the war and after that seemed to disappear from sight; another friend who was a classics major and later managed a café and wrote poems and died of cancer a couple of years ago; but I will resist except to say that the poem stays with me, in the way that songs we fall in love to stay with us, as a figure for that time and those people, and their different lives will always feel to me as if they are playing out in time the way the adjectives of experience play over the adamant nouns in Stevens’s poem: rosy chocolate and chophouse chocolate and musky chocolate, perplexed and tense and tranced machine.

And there was the incident of “The Snow Man.” It occurred at a wedding at the end of my sophomore year, of a woman we all liked, large, placid, Irish, a drama major, and the daughter of the man who conducted the last big band in the last seedy, once-glamorous dance hall in San Francisco in the 1950s when dancing to Maury Monohan’s orchestra was a citywide trope for absurdly retro behavior. She was marrying a classmate we only grudgingly liked; perhaps we were jealous, but we all showed up for the wedding. And at the reception in one of the rooms of a house that sat over a steep hillside cliff, another of my classmates announced that he was going to kill himself. I came onto this drama late and it’s still not clear to me how it began, but when I came into the room, there was a small knot of people standing around one of my friends—his name was Zack and he was an acting student—who was standing by an open window. He looked wild-eyed and he was talking to his friend Tony, with whom I knew he had been in the navy. They were inseparable friends and they cultivated a certain cool bleakness that was stylish then, so that someone of our group had called them the Laurel and Hardy of tragedy. At that moment it looked to me distinctly as if Tony was goading Zack. They had apparently been talking about “the void,” the term for nothingness we all used, and Zack must have spoken of his despair, because Tony was telling him with pure scorn that he didn’t feel despair because he didn’t feel anything. He was always acting, always a fake, generating histrionics to make himself feel real, feel anything at all. Look, jump if you want, Tony was saying, who do you think cares? And you know, he said, you might just have to do it because you’ve talked yourself into it. It was at that point that Zack said, “I feel it.” Hitting his stomach. “I feel it. You know the ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’? Well, this is the nothing that fucking is, baby.” I thought later that there was something like sexual tension between them, and at that moment I thought that Zack really might jump and that Tony was clearly trying to cut off his avenues of escape, but the truth is I was so besotted with literature at the time that I remember mainly being impressed that someone could quote Wallace Stevens at a moment like that. As it happened, Zack did not jump. The bride, Agnes, came into the room after Zack had climbed out the window and onto the balcony, and she began talking to him and then suggested we all leave, which we did, and after a while they came downstairs together and danced to her father’s orchestra. If I were Nabokov, I could leave them dancing to “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” which I have recently read was one of Wallace Stevens’s favorite songs and was the kind of song Agnes’s father was apt to play, but I’m not and I have some sense of shame. As for the nothing that is, I was soon enough in graduate school, where the discussion of the poem focused on whether or not it was in favor of the pathetic fallacy, which was another matter, and not long after that I had begun to read around in Buddhism and to see that there were other ways of thinking about the void and that what I loved in the cleanness of the writing of that poem might be connected to those other ways. And some time in that period I came to see that “the nothing that is” was connected to the way the adjectives in “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” played over the nouns, the way that it seemed the quality of things, their accidents, as someone might say who had been dipped in Aristotle, but not their essence, could be known. And I suppose I must have connected that floating thought to the comedy of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” though I don’t exactly remember doing so.

When I was an undergraduate, poetry was much more for me a matter of poems than of poets. But in graduate school I began to acquire some sense of Wallace Stevens. I was never very interested in the Keatsian side of his writing, the wedding-cake baroque of “The Comedian as the Letter C.” What I loved in him was the clarity. I wasn’t against the other so much as I just didn’t take it in, and I certainly didn’t understand the issues implicit in the two sides of his style. I knew a few poems, and almost as soon as I began to acquire an attitude toward Stevens, various things intervened to qualify my first hypnotic attraction to him. A couple of things that can stand for this change are the civil rights movement and my discovery in my senior year of the essays of James Baldwin, and through him the essays of Albert Camus, which began to awaken a different political and moral sense in me. And also the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963 and the ensuing escalation of the war in Vietnam. I heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination one day in the fall of my first year of graduate study. I was in a lecture course on poetry given by Yvor Winters when I heard the news. By then I had some idea of who Stevens was and I had read Winters’s essay that, though it’s clear Winters thought Stevens was a great poet, nevertheless indicts him for a kind of trivial hedonism at the core of his thought. I was disposed to argue with every word Winters spoke, and I thought he was wrong about Stevens, but not entirely wrong. For different reasons than Winters, of course. The country we were growing up into, its racism, the violence it was unleashing in Asia, what seemed in those early years the absolute acquiescence of our elders in that violence, changed the tenor of my thinking about literature and made Wallace Stevens seem much less attractive as a model.

Arguments about him raged in my group of friends. We knew by then that Stevens had been an executive of the Hartford Insurance Company, that he was making good money during the Depression and lived well. One of my closest friends among the graduate students was Jiri Wyatt and he was particularly skeptical of Stevens. Jiri had spent his early childhood hidden with his Jewish parents from the Nazis in the attic of a Slovakian farmhouse. He was much more politically sophisticated than the rest of us, and he was very funny and very bright. I remember specifically arguing with him. I was inclined to take Stevens’s side. Jiri had gone to school in Boston. He could be scathing on the subject of what he called Harvard aestheticism, a new category to me, and enraged by the idea of a whole generation of English professors and graduate students fawning over the novels of Virginia Woolf and Henry James and the poems of T. S. Eliot as a cover for indulging their fantasies of belonging to a social class that answered to their aesthetic refinement. “They’re cripples,” he’d say. “Laughable. I mean, my God, look at this century.” At Tressider Union under the oak trees in the spring sun. The war was escalating rapidly. We were all listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. “But Stevens’s subject,” I’d argue, “is epistemology.” And Jiri, I think it was Jiri, impatiently: “Oh, come on. At some point epistemology is a bourgeois defense against actually knowing anything.”

We did know, or had heard, that Stevens had written a letter to a friend who was buying tea for him in Ceylon in which he said that he didn’t care what kind of tea his friend sent on as long as it couldn’t be had in the United States, and I took that story to be, classically, an emblem of our relation to South Asia and thought that its attitude was connected to what I had learned from Winters and Jiri to think of as Stevens’s Harvard-aesthete 1910 dandyism, not morally repellent especially because it was so unconscious and so much of its time, but unsatisfactory, not useful. I also knew—it was widely quoted among us—Stevens’s reaction to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia: that if the coons had taken it from the monkeys, the Italians might as well take it from the coons. Which seemed an equally predictable provincial blindness, but less forgivable. I also knew—or sensed; it hadn’t quite happened yet—that Stevens was in the process of becoming what I think he was not then thought to be, one of the central modern poets.

It was in this context that I began to replay in my mind the lines from “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” The first thing that struck me was their lordliness, that part of our pleasure in chanting it several years before had been its imperiousness. Call the roller of big cigars—no doubt a Cuban or a Puerto Rican, I thought at the time, though in New York and Connecticut rolling cigars, I’ve learned since, was mostly a Jewish trade—and set him to work in the kitchen, where in some fantasy out of Henry James or Charles Laughton’s Henry VIII “wenches” were employed. In 1964—my students didn’t quite believe this—white men of the older generation in the United States still commonly called the black men who worked in airports handling luggage “boy.” I listened again to the line that commanded “boys to bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.” And while I was at it, I noticed that “last month’s newspapers” was a metaphor for history, one I feel the sweetness of now. Who cares about history? Let the boys use it to wrap flowers in when they come courting. But at the time—or was it at that age? I was twenty-two, Stevens was forty-three, twice my age, when he wrote the poem—taking history seriously seemed a central task of poetry.

When I tried myself to write poems about history and politics, I had in mind writing a poem about the California landscape and the U.S. seizure of California after the Mexican-American War and about the Dow Chemical plant in the southern part of San Francisco Bay that was manufacturing napalm for the Asian war. And I thought vaguely that I would focus that poem on the person of a woman, the daughter of the first harbormaster of Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was called in the 1840s. Her fiancé had been murdered by Kit Carson in the skirmishes that occurred when the old Californian families resisted the U.S. expeditionary force. It was a way of writing about the violence in American history and when I sat down to the poem, which is published in my first book, Field Guide, and is called “Palo Alto: The Marshes,” the first line I wrote was “She dreamed along the beaches of this coast.” It was a couple of days before it occurred to me that I had lifted and transposed the first line of “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and when I did, I remembered that the name of the fiancé whom Kit Carson killed was Ramon, and it gave me a place for writing the poem. My consciousness of Stevens’s poem fell away as I worked, but its starting point is an instance of how polemical my relation to him felt to me in those years. He felt to me like he needed to be resisted, as if he were a luxury, like ice cream, that was not to be indulged in.

Years later though, when I looked at “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” again, I felt much more forgiving of the tone of the poem. I said to myself, this isn’t Babbitt fantasying himself a houseful of servants in Hartford, it is Prospero speaking to his daughter, and speaking in the subjunctive at that. But saying this, one also had to say that in Shakespeare and throughout English literature, royalty expressed as power over others is a central figure for the power of imagination. And somewhere in those years it occurred to me finally that the poem is about death, which I thought made it a more wonderful and darker joke than I had understood. And at some still later stage, I think it must have been after reading Helen Vendler on the use of the subjunctive in Stevens, but also after I had had enough experience of failure and disappointment in my own life to get it, I felt the pathos of the wishing in the poem and of the grammar that expresses that pathos, so that by the time I was the age of Stevens when he wrote the poem, the three words “let be be . . .” struck me as a brilliant and sad figure for the fundamental human wish that seems so often impossible for us and that Stevens had taken for one of his central themes.

And on another occasion—I can remember the shower in which the thought occurred to me, aquamarine tile, the house of a lover, thinking about what I then conceived to be the sadness of the poem—I was wondering about its fundamental gaiety and how it was achieved, and I thought about that delicious phrase that transforms itself from assonance into alliteration, “and bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” It lets you know that, at least in language, magic can happen. It struck me suddenly that “bid him whip in kit/chen cups” contained the longest sequence (five in a row) of consecutively assonantal syllables I could think of in a poem. Toweling off, I must have been mumbling the lines to myself. “What are you thinking about?” she asked. She was wearing a pale, sea-green towel. “I was thinking: Bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” “Concupiscent what?” she asked. “Curds,” I said, looking her in the eye, trying out an imitation of W. C. Fields, “concupiscent curds.”

As I was rereading the poem in the last few weeks, thinking about writing about it, I made another discovery. I decided that the crucial thing about it in the end is the rhythm of the first six lines of the second stanza that I had neglected to take in twenty-five years ago when I was not very interested in hearing about death:

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.

This is as pitiless as any verse in Stevens, I think. That enjambment at the end of the fifth line and the stutter of a stop in the sixth delivers the last two syllables as baldly as anyone could contrive, and the rhyme—bum, bum—could not be more hollow. It is writing that returns the word mordant to its etymological root. And though I still think it is funny, it seems to me now to be, and to be intended to be, point-blank and very dark. And there are other things to notice. I think my disgust with the class-ridden drollery of the first stanza was not altogether misplaced, but it is certainly undercut by that shabby or melancholy or funny, in any case accurate, domestic touch—the glass knobs missing from the deal dresser. Deal is plain pine or fir, a middle-class dresser, spiffed up a bit with glass. And there is a kind of memento mori in the peacock tail that had been—“ once,” he writes to suggest the pathos of all our efforts at décor—embroidered on the sheet. And there is also something plain-dealing and very like Robert Frost in the diction—“ so as to cover”; and if her horny feet protrude, “they come / to show . . .” Every detail of the writing is meant to make this death as homely and actual as . . . what? Not Guatemala certainly. As any death in Emily Dickinson.

The second-to- last line of the poem—“ Let the lamp affix its beam”—was for a while the only line in the poem that I thought was pure padding. He needed a rhyme for “cream” and a final flourish, hence a spotlight, hence “beam” and the otherwise meaningless lamp. But once you sense how dark, mordant, sardonic, pitiless a reading this poem can sustain, the lamp becomes an interesting figure for the focus of consciousness. It would seem that the beam is affixed on the stage where the final, now supremely ambiguous refrain is going to occur: “The only emperor . . .” One paraphrase might be: turn your attention to living, seize the day. If it says that, it also says: by all means turn your attention away from those horny toes. A sort of memento non mori. Or to borrow a phrase from Eliot, humankind cannot bear very much reality. It is also possible to read it to mean the opposite, that one should affix the beam on the horny toes, so that one understands from a clear look at the reality of death that there can be no emperor but ice cream, no real alternative to death but dessert while you can get it. Which is, I suppose, nearer to my first reading of the poem and to what Winters meant by Stevens’s hedonism. I think the issue may be undecidable, finally, since both readings are grammatically permissible and both in their way in character.

Perhaps the point lies in the poem’s seeming poised on the knife edge between these two attitudes. But however one reads these penultimate lines, they carry their darkness into that last line. Which makes for a very different poem from the one those college boys thought they were chanting thirty years ago as they waded through wet hillside grass in the early spring and brings it nearer to the nothingness of which Zack had spoken, Zack whom I see now and then on late-night TV playing a psychotic killer or a gaunt, hunted drug dealer in reruns of Hill Street Blues or Cagney and Lacey.

It may not be completely accidental that while I was puzzling over the ending of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” a photograph appeared in the newspaper of a pair of stolid Dutch workmen removing a statue of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was briefly and quite literally an emperor, from its stand and carrying it from Madame Tussauds wax museum in Amsterdam, rigidly horizontal, immobilized in a gesture of seigneurial self-assurance. It made me think also that the poem, if it has anything to say about political power, does so by talking about politics and pleasure and death. And it may not be wrong, in its merciless way, about where power usually resides in the world.

I imagine I am not through thinking about this poem or about “Sunday Morning” or “The Snowman” or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or “The Idea of Order at Key West” or “Of Mere Being” or “The World as Meditation,” which are other poems I have been brooding over and arguing with myself about for much of my adult life. But I heard it early and I’ve lived with it for some time and thought that it would serve for one image of the way poems happen in a life when they are lived with, rather than systematically studied. Or alternately studied and lived with, and in that way endlessly reconceived—which seems to have been Wallace Stevens’s basic notion of the relation of the imagination to the world.


Excerpted from What Light Can Do by Robert Hass. ©2013 by Robert Hass, published by Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.