When I was in High School I suffered a debilitating lower back injury that forced me to withdraw from all strenuous physical activity. I sold my surfboard, tossed my athletic supporter in the laundry, deflated my volleyball, and transferred from Physical Education classes to become a library assistant.
Working in a High School library taught me a lot about the tasks and skills needed to maintain an apparently large collection of reading materials. I look back at it now and can only smile at how quaint and primitive it all was. Needless to say, it was a time before computers (our word processor had to be sharpened regularly).
In between lettering book spines, shelving returned books, checking out new acquisitions, and even sweeping the floor, I had plenty of time to roam around the library, discovering new and interesting materials. One book I recall pulling down from the reserved shelf more than once was a big thick one full of quotations (Bartlett’s?) that when I was seventeen seemed fresh and profound but would now be considered clichéd at best.
The same thing can be said about a poem which is so familiar and oft quoted that it has lost its freshness and power to inspire. Or is that true? Despite Ezra admonishing us to “make it new,” an old and comfortable poem is for the ages. Isn’t that the definition of a classic?
Consider one of the most famous poems by Wallace Stevens:
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 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.
I slipped my copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens down from an over-crowded bookshelf and flipping through the dusty, heavily annotated pages took pause to read some of my favorite and most familiar poems: The Man with the Blue Guitar, The Snow Man, The Idea of Order at Key West.
What is your favorite Wallace Stevens poem? Bartlett’s quotation? High School memory?