The CEA Forum
Winter/Spring 2008: 37.1
WE ARE WHAT WE SAY WE EAT:
WHAT'S ON THE MENU IN THE POETRY CLASSROOM?
What's on the menu in a class reading recent American poetry are plums, grapes, blackberries, and apples; eggs, and bread with peach butter and honey; oxtail soup; water, coffee, tea, and wine; trout, beef, lamb, chicken paprika, and Genoa salami; corn tortillas, chili con came, beans, rice; quiche with broccoli, bacon, cheese, and spinach; root vegetables; and chocolate, chocolate globs, and spumoni. However, to list food like this—as though it were merely factual, not actual, not an activity—is to miss the wonderful onomatopoeia and synesthesia—the kinesiology—of food when it is experienced through poetic metaphor. What are on the menu are cherries: "the fleshy sweetness packed / around the sperm of swaying trees"; plums: "delicious / so sweet / and so cold"; and "green chile con came / between soft warm leaves of corn tortillas." To speak and hear food in the poetic mouth and voice and ear is why we are what we say we eat in recent American poetry.
With a nod to Shakespeare, if food be the food of love, eat on. A great pleasure we can have as careful readers of poetry, since we may love to eat, but we may love language even more, can be sharing poems with students in which we are what we say we eat. In these poems, the act of speaking and the food of which we speak are of the mouth, of the body, which seems obvious enough, yet, in a time of increasing abstraction or dissociation of sensibility, when many mouths are seen, often with horrified grimaces, behind glass (TV) and most food is eaten without participation in its preparation, we need vivid reminders. One test of incarnation is if we ourselves or other readers with whom we are sharing a poetic meal salivate, but if we do salivate, it will be at the sound and rhythm and physicality of language as much as at the anticipation of putting actual food into our mouths. It will be at the substantiality of words as they form our sustaining act of speaking poetry. In the poems I have in mind, we enact an incarnation of word and body and appetite which is often impelled by love—sexual and/or spiritual. Fundamentally metaphor, this poetry is a language of actual incarnation, though of course vegetarians are welcome at the table.
The purpose in focusing on poetic food is to combine a pedagogy with an ethics. To accomplish this, we need to emphasize the importance of reading with the mouth and ear—speaking and listening—as a way of actualizing and animating the relationship between mind and body and spirit, in other words, as a way of becoming more whole.
Galway Kinnell's sonnet "Blackberry Eating," like many of the poems ripe for tasting, begins with love: "I love to go out in late September / among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries..." (24). The crucial simile, “as words sometimes do,” begins the sestet:
One of my students (Alexis Key) called this the "smorgasbord of Ss poem." In our performance of the lines, articulated syllables form an icy, black language, which is the "language / of blackberry-eating." Words in the mouth are like berries in the mouth, and the "like" almost disappears in an identity of word / berry. Each word is a berry, multi-faceted yet singular—a little synthesis of the one and the many.
In Helen Chasin's "The Word Plum" the word "plum," rather than the plum itself, is delicious, though I would suggest that in this poem and others the sense of "speech act" is so strong and so intimately linked with the act of eating that any sense of plum as mere fact or object-in-itself melts or burns or bakes away as we form the word in our mouths (214). The actual plum is drawn into our mouth as the poem teaches us to pronounce the word "plum." What the mouth does in eating underlies metaphorically the speaking. About this poem the same student wrote, "In 'The Word Plum,' I remember so clearly the juicy word plum feeling so luscious in my dry mouth. I prepared my taste buds. I fixed my lips to push out p-l-u-m with the pout of my lips and the push of my mouth. The savory poem was in the plum of my mouth. Poetry was something I had learned to do with my mouth; language was something I had learned to taste. I bit into the word ‘plum' and broke open the taut skin of the juicy fruit with my 'lip and tongue of pleasure.' I spoke and listened. I felt the word 'plum' as I said it is 'delicious.' I bit and it responded to my mouth, saliva, and teeth simultaneously as I ate it."
The poem is short and tart.
Plums may, of course, remind us of William Carlos Williams' well-known poem.
For Williams, the gift of the poem replaces the plums gobbled up. As in "The Word Plum" or "Blackberries," the language of eating is so sensuous, so appreciative, so full of the impulse to share, that the language is a more than adequate substitute for the actual food.
Aron Keesbury's darkly funny, gritty sonnet "Song to a Waitress" begins with a stumbling 11-syllable first line before the perfect iambic pentameter of most of the rest of the poem (218).
The opening line is like a bumbling stumble in Brueghel's painting "The Kermess" and in William Carlos Williams' poetic version "The Dance." With the beginning of the sestet, "And come back every now and then and fill / my big fat mug..." we realize fully the obvious, fat comparison of the mug of coffee and the mug/face of the man, and we realize that the octave, with its continual play on fat and mug has been a witty portrait of the man himself—body and mind.
As another student (Kim Yeckley) wrote, the words are "short, stout, stinging words. Chunky mug-like words." The song to the waitress is as onomatopoetic of the personality of the man singing as it is of the liquid caffeine and sugar he keeps pouring into his mouth.
Another food poem which enacts the full, sensuous and sensual use of the mouth serves an epigram as an hors d'oeuvre. Sally Croft's "Home-Baked Bread" opens with a tribute to the book many of us were given when we married—The Joy of Cooking (125).
The poem begins with wholesome whole wheat, plays with "cunning," becomes more and more sexual, moves from cunning to insinuation to seduction in the kitchen to anticipated consummation in the upstairs bedroom. The poem begins
The sensuality of the poem comes with an imagery, sound, and rhythm of spices, rising, warmth, arousal, open vowels and opening bodies.
Later we hear the wonderful vowels of “warm bread spread with peach butter” and smile at the insinuation of bedspread in bread spread. Bread is well-baked and eaten in the kitchen, or, metaphorically, in bed.
Isn't it interesting that we can eat and speak, can consume and express with the same complicated orifice?
Carolyn Kizer's "Food for Love," begins with a provocative epigram from Samuel Butler II: "Eating is touch carried to the bitter end" (101). The poem opens with
This is a fairly indigestible appetizer (or it could be a very funny image of James Beard's good trencherman eating a whole chicken). The lover continues to prepare for her meal by first denuding her partner by drying him—turning him or her into a “total desert” (not dessert), then renuding him, watering him, until “succulents spring up everywhere” and he is “resurrected.” The poem ends with a holy communion:
In a lighter sauce, in Richard Armour's charming "Going to Extremes," a simple contraction gets the reader's lips out of the way; then the mouth turns as much as is humanly possible into a ketchup bottle, into a glottal bottle (196).
Just as the rhyme of "bottle" and "lot'll" opens our ears and our hearing, the choice of “lot'll" instead of "lot will" opens the mouth and throat. We give up the determined, clenched jaw of "None'll come —" and sound pours out of the mouth just as the bottle expresses its contents: "And then a lot'll."
We learn through performing these poems—saying them, hearing them, and understanding them simultaneously—that language takes its meaning not by referring to external objects-in-themselves but by the experience of speaking, hearing, and doing the language. As Wittgenstein says, "Meaning something is like going up to someone" (457; 133e). You can't take the mouth out of eating or speaking without risking linguistic, culinary, and personal abstemiousness and abstraction—a thin gruel, whether one is eating or speaking. Of course, we could select many additional poems for the consumption of reading with our mouths and minds. Other poems might include Robert Creeley's “The Language,” Philip Levine's “Salami,” Jimmy Santiago Baca's "Green Chile," James Wright's “The Fruits of the Season,” John Berryman's “Dream Song #4,” Li-Young Lee's “Eating Together,” and Gary Snyder's “Song of the Taste.” Whatever we order in our individual classrooms, may we enjoy healthful reading and bon appétit.
Armour, Richard. Poetry: An Introduction. 4th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.
Chasin, Helen. Poetry: An Introduction. 4th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.
Croft, Sally. Poetry: An Introduction. 4th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.
Keesbury, Aron. Poetry: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.
Kinnell, Galway. Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980.
Kizer, Carolyn. Poetry: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1998.
Lee, Li-Young. Rose. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1968.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
Dr. Tom Getz (THG1@psu.edu) is Associate Professor of English at Penn State York. In his research and teaching, he emphasizes the value of the artistic act—the way a poem is energized if interpreted as an expressive act of speaking and listening. He has published research on a wide range of modern writers: Henry James, Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, Eudora Welty, Randall Jarrell, Galway Kinnell, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Seamus Heaney.
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