Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last months newspapers.
Let be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
The children gather around the curls of cream, to wonder at the miraculous substance and this ordinary, humble labor is made momentarily great by his trade, a European Emperor who can give and take at will, and thus also seems faintly sinister in his muscularity.
Stevens celebrated “the emergence from old ideologies in the form of what was rapidly becoming an aesthetic ideology,” a form of “American home-grown” modernist abstraction that still had its roots in the concrete, the concrete nature of imagism, and also of plain, simple, profound American reality. Unlike other American modernists, like T.S. Eliot (who eventually became a British citizen and converted to Anglicanism) or Ezra Pound (a permanent expatriate) Stevens had no self-consciousness of not being part of the European tradition, nor did he aspire to tie his poetry to that tradition. (Filreis, 1992)
It is true that Stevens was profoundly interested in pictorial art, which also heavily influenced the more European modernists, particularly in their reliance upon imagism. Again, imagism stressed the need to create a picture with words, rather than to create a coherent storyline or meaning, even if these images were not necessarily connected. (Like the blackbirds, or the strange curls of the “Emperor of Ice Cream.”) However, Stevens resolutely defended his right to pick and chose his influences, and did not approve wholesale of all modern art, which often struck him as deliberately obscure — when he used fragmentation, he did so out of a genuine artistic need to express himself, he said, not to confuse the reader, as modern art often aspired to confuse the viewer with no real purpose.
“All art that is not modern is antique; and all modern art… enjoys the completes possible prestige merely because it is modern. If I go into a gallery containing the work of a dunce, I am certain to find him protected; and if I tear my hair at his ineffectiveness, the dealer recognizes me as illiterate and insensitive.” (Stevens, Letters cited by Filreis, 1992)
In other words, unless Americans were careful, they could be just as hidebound by European traditions as their forefathers, even if their tradition became that of a fascination with modernism, or specific traditions of art or literary production. Art should express the imagination, and the needs of the here and now, rather than attempt to be part of a movement — and in this iconoclasm, with roots in American independence and individualism far older than 20th century modernism, Stevens made his mark as a uniquely national modernist poet.
Filreis, Alan. “Beyond the rhetoricians touch: Stevens painterly abstractions.”
Originally published in American Literary History. Spring 1992: pp. 230-63. Accessible 4 Dec 2006 at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/talcoat-alh.html
Groundbreaking Book: Harmonium by Wallace Stevens.” Poets.org. Online publication of the Academy of American Poets. [4 Dec 2006] http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5952
Modernism.” Poets.org. Online publication of the Academy of American Poets.
Dec 2006] http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5664
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1954
Wallace Stevens.” Poets.org. Online publication of the Academy of American Poets.
Dec 2006] http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/124.