Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Ice cream

An early train to London to get to the RCA where I am running a guest project. It's flattering to be asked and sheer curiosity tempts one, so six days ago I went down with a project devised for three time slots.

I have been reading Wallace Stevens recently and The Emperor of Ice Cream was running in my mind so I came up with the idea of ice cream. First of all, Stevens's ice cream, as here:

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 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. 

We read the poem, roll it round our mouths, at least I do, then we read Helen Vendler's prose interpretation, here, in which she imagines it as a prose narrative. Then compare the prose narrative with what happens in the poem, concentrating, to begin with, on lines 2-5, those concupiscent curds and this wenches 'in such dress / as they are used to wear' and see where that language hails from, so we might enter the poem as a poem. We talk about Stevens's 'gaudiness' (his own words), and see how far we might be able to use language as a poet might use it, with all its dimensions.

Then I bring it an excerpt from Huysmans' Á Rebours where the aesthete Des Esseintes attends to his liquor cabinet that also serves as an orchestra:

He made his way to the dining-room, where in a recess in one of the walls, a cupboard was contrived, containing a row of little barrels, ranged side by side, resting on miniature stocks of sandal wood and each pierced with a silver spigot in the lower part.
This collection of liquor casks he called his mouth organ. A small rod was so arranged as to connect all the spigots together and enable them all to be turned by one and the same movement, the result being that, once the apparatus was installed, it was only needful to touch a knob concealed in the panelling to open all the little conduits simultaneously and so fill with liquor the tiny cups hanging below each tap.
The organ was then open. The stops, labelled "flute," "horn," "vox humana," were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would imbibe a drop here, another there, another elsewhere, thus playing symphonies on his internal economy, producing on his palate a series of sensations analogous to those wherewith music gratifies the ear.

We read right to the end of the passage where he has to go to the dentist, discuss synaesthesia and ponder how far ice cream might serve as music. This, I am guessing, sounds a bit infantile to them but it makes decent conversation and in the end it produces results. The young are so anxious to be cool and, preferably, dry too. Life, on the whole, is less so.

I also hand them some texts covering The Ice Cream Wars in Glasgow as another possibility.

So today I was back to talk to them in small groups about their ideas. It turns out there is a considerable variety of projects, some more to do with ice-cream than others, but relatively free interpretation is part of the package. In two weeks time we'll see how the projects turn out.

In the meantime I am home, very drained. Tomorrow night life goes on in London again. I'll say something about that tomorrow morning.


Gwil W said...

One of my favourite poems.

Several threads runs through Harmonium.

It's no coincidence that the poem begins "Call the roller of big cigars" and that the very next poem in the collection is called "The Cuban Doctor".

But not only that, if we look at the preceding poem "Depression before Spring" we are told that when the cock crows "no queen rises" and the "hair of my blonde . . . / "as the spittle of cows" and that finally ". . . no queen comes /in slipper green".

George S said...

That's really interesting Gwilym. I'll look again at the order of poems. Thank you.