Monday, May 5, 2008


"I'm afraid of worms, Roxanne." ("Words!")

The builder was asking me about which parts of the door to our new bathroom we would stain, and which parts we would paint. "Will you stain the lintel?" he asked. I looked at him, mind rushing to put an image with the word "lintel." No image came. Finally he had to walk me into the bedroom and point to the lintel, which is the frame around the door. I think of it as "molding," but that's not le mot juste.

I am unused to other people knowing words I don't know. If I had paid more attention to my favorite graduate school professor, Eugene Hammond, I would have learned more words for the frames around doors and windows (he advised that, in the course of advising writers to use details in their descriptions).

With first-year college students, the single most successful teaching technique I have discovered for getting them to understand--and possibly like--a poem is to make them look up the words. (How do you "make" students do anything? You give them a quiz on it. It doesn't matter how little the quiz is worth, in terms of their final grade.)

The poem I think I learned the most about when I looked up the words is "The Emperor of Ice Cream," by Wallace Stevens (from my list of essential poems and a favorite for both me and permanent quivive):

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 as 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.

The word that illuminated the poem, for me, is "deal." Sure, I got the connotation, that maybe it's where the men left their money for the dead woman, but for years I didn't get the denotation of the word--literally, it's a cheap dresser made of soft pine wood, one that won't last for more than a generation. I've seen a lot of students get the connotation of the word "horny" without getting the denotation, which is "calloused." Is this a measure of the power of the poem? That it can evoke feeling without us even realizing exactly how?

I think the word "concupiscent" might work in such a non-logical way. How on earth can curds, presumably for ice-cream, have "strong sexual desire" (the definition for "concupiscent")? Is it the way he's whipping them that's concupiscent? Is it that desire is like ice-cream, and you'd better enjoy it before it wanes again (is this why husbands typically touch their wives amorously while the wives are trying to finish loading the dishwasher?)

This is a good poem for a spring morning. It's less adult than the finale of Avenue Q, with its decorous "only for now." It's like a kid playing "king of the hill," except that the object of this game is to have an empire, ice cream. Do the rules include whether you're still an emperor if some of your flavors melt? Maybe you're just king of one flavor then, and finally just "dumb," that, is, speechless, probably because your mouth is cold and full.

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

I forgot the male point of view on "concupiscent"--that when he whips the curds, they get stiff...