Ice cream is so tasty and wonderful, there should be an emperor of it, right? This is sort of what Wallace Stevens is getting at in his poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," first published in 1923. Okay, maybe he's not suggesting that we all elect some guy/gal to oversee all ice cream production in the world, but he is suggesting that we take a moment to appreciate all of the delicious and fun things that life has to offer without worrying about all of the technical stuff. The technical and serious stuff, according to Stevens, is often silly and not worth fussing over. Hence, we get a title like, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream."
The interesting thing about this poem is that all of the delightful language we get occurs during a funeral. Weird? Maybe not. A wise person once said, "You're dead a long time." Those may be depressing words, but the thought is something that we think Stevens would be on board with. Why fret about the fleeting, superficial conditions of existence? We should take a moment to appreciate things for what they are rather than what they seem. In other words, dig the moment and don't fret about appearances too much, because in the end we'll all end up at a funeral, with or without the ice cream.
Now, if you're confused about whether to be cheered up by this thought, depressed, or a bit of both, don't worry. You're not alone. In fact, as a poet, Stevens' first impression on readers is often one of… confusion. Still, like a quadruple-layer sundae, his poetry—and "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" in particular—gets more rewarding the deeper you plunge. Published in his first collection of poetry, Harmonium, which came out in 1923, Stevens was already 44 by the time he first stepped onto the literary stage. For the next thirty years of his life, and in all the decades since, he's cast a huge shadow in American poetry, renowned as one of the most ingenious and complex artists ever to dash off a line of verse. So, enjoy one of his signature treats here. It's well worth any kind of ice cream headache it gives you along the way.
Bet we just might be able to find some interesting crossroads between the Joker and Wallace Stevens. Let's start with one idea. The Joker liked to talk a lot about chaos and how we try to do the right thing, even when we may naturally feel like doing the wrong thing. He's kind of suggesting that we act like hypocrites at times (saying one thing and doing the opposite).
Well, Stevens thought along similar lines. "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is very much about this problem of "seeming" and "being." Stevens thought we spend way too much time worrying about appearances and what others might think of us, rather than just allowing ourselves to be, well, ourselves. (By the way, this isn't a new idea. Stevens and the Joker for that matter are getting at something that Shakespeare was writing about a few hundred years ago. If you don't believe us, just check out Hamlet.)
We're guessing that this message is probably connecting with you on some level. Really, if you've ever combed your hair in the mirror, you've done so with the thought about how your appearance will be received by others. And, really, it goes a lot further than that, doesn't it? Clothes, cars, jobs, colleges, friends—there are countless ways to "seem" in our modern society, and the majority of them are, frankly, exhausting. You know what, though? At the end of the day (and by day, we mean, you know, life), none of that stuff really matters.
What does matter, you might ask? Well, how about ice cream? Stevens thinks so anyway. The main point of this poem seems to be that we need to start living more in the here and now. After all, one day we'll all end up like the dead woman at the funeral, with our feet sticking out of the sheets. The question is, how would you like to spend all the time you have between now and then? Worrying about appearances, or indulging your sweet tooth? See? We knew you and Stevens would hit it off.