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Selections from the Emperor of Ice Cream

Stephen Ross

foerJohn N. Serio
Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems
Borzoi, 2009
352 Pages
ISBN 978-0307280471

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who worked most of his adult life for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, wrote some of the most memorable and influential poems of the 20th century. His great subject was the “imagination”—the self, the muse, poetry itself—and its reality-making encounters with the world. In “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”, he writes, “We say God and the imagination are one. . ./ How high that highest candle lights the dark”. And in one of his most famous poems, “The Snow Man”, he describes “the listener, who listens in the snow,/ And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”.

Among American modernist poets, Stevens was the gaudiest and most playful. Those who have never read a line of his poetry probably still know that “the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream”. With the release of the Selected Poems, readers will once again find their way to these difficult and rewarding poems.

That said, the Selected Poems does not displace or fill in the gaps of earlier volumes of Stevens’s poetry—namely, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Collected Poems, the large selections of The Palm at the End of the Mind and Opus Posthumous, and most recently, the magisterial, 1,032 page Library of America Collected Poetry and Prose. Nor does this slim hardback offer an attractive, handy alternative to these imposing volumes, with its toothpaste-green and black colouring and oversize sidelong cover photograph of Stevens (which almost certainly would have made the poet uncomfortable). Selected editions of the American poets Frank O’Hara and James Merrill have also appeared in this unfortunate format within the last year, proving that tragic events always come in threes.

Inside its toothpaste cover, the Selected continues to disappoint. It offers nothing by way of a critical apparatus or even notes to the poems (aside from the requisite chronology of Stevens’s life and list of suggested readings). Of course, these are not requirements for a selected poems collection, though they might have enticed Stevens veterans eager for fresh insights into his work and certainly would have been appreciated by novice readers. While editor John Serio should be commended for including all of Stevens’s major long poems, and for hitting many other highlights along the way, one can’t help wondering why this volume was made in the first place.

Ultimately, readers are better off sticking with the Library of America volume or the paperback Collected Poems, available in just about every major bookstore in the Western world. In a late poem, Stevens refers to the Collected as “the planet on the table”. It’s a planet well worth exploring in its entirety.

Stephen Ross is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.