I was surprised at how bad I found Wallace Stevens' "Emperor of Ice Cream" when Garrison Keillor featured the poem last week on his "Writers' Almanac."
"The Emperor of Ice Cream" was one of those oft anthologized poems that I encountered as a college English major. Like Yeats' "The Second Coming," W.C. Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" and Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock," "The Emperor of Ice Cream" seemed like a mysterious totemic text. Now, it strikes me as overwrought and clumsy, its images forced.
It's one of those poems offered as "poetry" to those who don't read poems. Many who don't even like poems likely are familiar with it, remembering discussions from an English class somewhere about its meaning and use of symbols and so forth. I accepted all of this years ago, but now I find "Emperor" straining to be "poetic."
Such well-known poems lose their power through frequent cultural currency. Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is another poem that has lost relevance.
The critic David Orr recently published a book on Frost's chestnut, claiming that all of those teachers and graduation speakers have been wrong in seeing the poem as offering an inspirational message, of the value of going against convention. Orr and Frost scholars Robert Faggen and Jay Parini a few months ago appeared on the Diane Rehm radio show to discuss the poem for an hour. The three projected quite a load of meaning upon a pretty slight work. I'm sure Frost would have chuckled at all of this - he said the poem was a spoof.
Some poems hold up over the years. Keats' "To Autumn" and "Prufuck" remain new for me, and I still see the charm of "Wheelbarrrow" and "This Is Just to Say." I was amused to discover that the latter is now a Twitter meme, with new variations on the theme of plums found in the icebox. (A historical term that no longer has meaning).
Despite Orr's book, readers will continue to misread "The Road Not Taken." Orr's book strikes me as overbearing, as if he's the poetry commissar seeking to impose a snobbish accepted meaning on readers who find inspiration in it. But the poem's frequent use, extending to advertising, shows that its artistic significance has seriously eroded.