Virginia Woolf, famed author and independent woman, knew one very important thing for sure: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” (18). Although she lived in 20th-century England, Woolf touched upon something universal and timeless when she wrote that line in A Room of One’s Own. Food is of the essence to every human being. Every person in the world eats; like we need air, we need food. So much pleasure surrounds it—the smell of it, the family and friends who gather around it, and the taste of it! Without food, we’d have no energy, no life force to do anything, let alone write poetry. For this, food deserves a little homage paid, and as this thesis will prove, through the ages poets have paid it. Like they take human beings as muses, so have many poets been inspired by the very element that keeps them alive.
This thesis will examine various food poems from the first recorded poetry in 3,000 B.C. to the work of contemporary poets throughout the last century. I will highlight how food’s versatility makes it a timeless subject, and how it’s often used as a metaphor to express something else. That something else might be a political topic, religion, sexual desire, or mortality. In addition to using it as a metaphor, poets also write about it literally—no metaphors involved, and the result is often pure love: poetry that expresses appreciation and desire. In the end, metaphor or no metaphor, whichever way food is writ, poets reveal its universal quality, and the never-ending pleasure it brings.
One can trace the history of the world through poetry. From cave-wall etchings to modern-day beat sessions, poetry has been a constant in the creative realm of humankind. The earliest known recorded poetry dates back to 3,000 B.C. from Sumer in the Middle East where Iraq now is (World History, 18). An elegy discovered on a tablet came from a maid there who anxiously awaited the arrival of her courier. She writes about how she will pay him: “I will provide him with the fruits of the field,/ I will provide him with roasted barley and dates,/ I will provide him with bitter-sweet beer,/ I will provide him with grapes on the vine…” (Kramer, 18). And the list goes on to include honey, wine, figs, milk and cream, many of which were probably luxuries that only the wealthy enjoyed. Her poem is also proof that food-types equated social importance as they do today. Whatever her motivation for writing the poem, she proves food to be worthy enough to write about, even in the first civilization.
Two-thousand years later in Greece, the first two epic poems were transcribed. Homer, the alleged author, includes scenes rich with feasting in the Iliad and Odyssey. In the Odyssey, for example, food acts as a source of nourishment and a magical power, restoring energy in the men who eat it and helping them to forget their thoughts about home. Homer also uses food as a way to avert despair and create a more hospitable atmosphere. Aeneas, et al, in Odyssey has a feast as a way to instill civilization in his new home. And years later in 400 BC, Plato uses a wine drinking fest as the setting in his book The Symposium (the word symposium stems from the Greek word “sympinein” which means “to drink together” (Mish, 1196)). In it, Plato creates a scene in which a group of men make speeches on what they believe love is. Plato’s work is one example that depicts wine as an important element in social gatherings. Years later, in 8th-century China, Li Po takes on wine as his subject matter. His poem “Facing Wine” begins, “Never refuse wine. I’m telling you,/ people come smiling in spring winds:/ peach and plum like old friends, their/ open blossoms scattering toward me,/ singing orioles in jade-green trees,/ and moonlight probing gold winejars” (217). The opening line is advice from the narrator, explaining wine’s importance in a social setting, even in the year 725! Li Po includes wine and food in much of his poetry, but in a more personal way than the ancient Greeks did. Another example of eastern poetry comes from Matsuo Basho, who journeyed through Japan in the late 1600s. In “Taking Morning Tea,” Basho writes, “Taking morning tea,/ the monk remains in silence--/ chrysanthemums bloom” (165). He writes of the ritual in a personal way; it’s meditative. There is no metaphor present. He parallels taking morning tea with chrysanthemums blooming; both of which are very quiet, individual acts. Like Li Po, Basho writes of his subject directly. As I’ll examine later in the paper, many contemporary poets do the same.
Although ancient eastern poets wrote of it directly, food also proves to be a common metaphor in poetry, perhaps because we are reminded of it, by tradition, thrice daily. When hunger strikes, it’s on the brain, even for poets! The versatility of food is endless, from peaches, plums and pears, to succotash, casseroles and custard pies. Not to mention that we buy it, grow it, lug it, cook it, gather around it, eat it, and digest it. It’s a convenient metaphor, as it’s so much a part of life. An example of this is found in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. His work, so wrought with love and war, never ignores the basics in life. Within his 154 sonnets, he employs a lexicon highly associated with food and hunger. The words appetite, palate, feeding and feast are all regularly incorporated. He uses these words as metaphors for his intended subject. Sonnet number 118, for example:
“Like as, to make our appetites more keen,
With eager compounds we our palate urge,
As, to prevent our maladies unseen,
We sicken to shun sickness when we purge,
Even so, being full of your ne’er-cloying sweetness,
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding
And, sick of welfare, found a kind of meetness
To be diseased ere that there was true needing” (347).
This sonnet is one of five in which Shakespeare writes of love, and then, as shown in this particular sonnet, of preventing any indiscretions from taking place. In this case, the “appetite” metaphorically refers to one’s sexual appetite, and “eager compounds” (“pungent or bitter tasting concoctions” (346)) act as a metaphor for increasing one’s desire for another. Next, Shakespeare dichotomizes his lover and his infidelities, describing one as “sweetness” and the latter as “bitter sauces.” Shakespeare easily finds words surrounding food and hunger to describe his love life. Despite his famous name and works, Shakespeare was not the first to use food as a metaphor and certainly not the last.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) also uses food as a metaphor. Her poem “Hunger” is really an expression of her loneliness. The first two stanzas:
“I had been hungry all the years;
my noon had come, to dine;
I, trembling, drew the table near,
And touched the curious wine.
‘Twas this on tables I had seen,
When turning, hungry, lone,
I looked in windows, for the wealth
I could not hope to own” (45).
Through these metaphors, Dickinson also insinuates Christian communion by writing of bread and wine. The poem illustrates her search for herself; her loneliness and questions about religion are expressed here by referencing food.
In contrast to Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) writes of food to express sex. An English writer who emerged on the scene in 1907, Lawrence employs metaphor and simile in his poem “Figs.” The poem begins with an explanation of how to eat one “in society.” As I pointed out in Li Po’s work, the concern for “society” surfaces here and there in the works of certain poets. The first three stanzas are dedicated to this explanation, and the remaining 93 lines explore it as a metaphor for the female genitalia. Stanza five illustrates:
“The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part;
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.
The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled;
And but one orifice.
The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.
There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward;
Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb” (155).
Lawrence identifies the crack of the fig as “the yoni,” a Hindu word for vulva (Mish, 1369), and the inner flesh of the fig as “the womb.” He strives, however, to maintain women’s purity by writing, “…the female should always/ be secret.” And then later, “Fig, fruit of the female mystery, covert and inward,/ …Where everything happens invisible, flowering and/ fertilization, and fruiting/…Till it’s finished, and you’re over-ripe, and you burst to/ give up your ghost” (157). Lawrence goes full-circle with the metaphor, making use of it in terms of a woman’s secrecy, giving birth, and finally menopause, or her death, because “ripe figs won’t keep” (159).
While using food as a metaphor was highly popular around the turn of the 20th century, so was writing about it in a celebratory way. The work of songwriter Cole Porter (1891-1964) emerged in the first half of the 20th century. His poetry (meant to be sung), often rhyming and witty, focused on the basics of life—love, death and food! Here are the first five lines of “Sunday Morning Breakfast Time:” “Here’s to the piping porridge,/ Here’s to the biscuits hot,/ Here’s to the java/ Flowing like lava/ Out of the coffee pot” (31). With that, Porter demonstrates a celebration of food. Ogden Nash (1902-1971) does the same in his poem “The Clean Platter.” Infamous for taking everyday objects and situations and satirizing them, Nash never fails to incorporate whimsy and rhyme into his poetry. “The Clean Platter” is no exception, and like Porter’s piece, it clearly demonstrates a celebration of food. In fact, he states his case in stanza one: “The Oxford Book of English Verse/ Is lush with lyrics tender;/ A poet, I guess, is more or less/ Preoccupied with gender./ Yet I, though custom call me crude,/ Prefer to sing in praise of food” (Custard & Co., 65). Nash’s poetry appeals to the masses, adults and children alike. Three short poems on Nash’s view of parsnips, celery and mustard could easily be memorized by children because of their rhyming nature. All three poems follow, respectively: “The parsnip, children, I repeat,/ Is simply an anemic beet./ Some people call the parsnip edible;/ Myself, I find this claim incredible”; “Celery, raw,/ Develops the jaw,/ But celery, stewed,/ Is more quietly chewed” (Custard & Co., 17); and “I’m mad about mustard--/ Even on custard” (Custard & Co., 18).
And like Li Po writes of drinking wine with company, Nash does the same in “Reflection on Ice-Breaking.” It’s a short poem, but one that highlights alcohol’s importance in a social setting: “Candy/ Is dandy/ But liquor/ Is quicker” (Eat, Drink, 215). Despite being written twelve-hundred years apart, “Facing Wine” and Nash’s poem both give the same message; there’s an element here that’s timeless.
Writing about food with such excitement as Porter and Nash did seems apropos for that time period. In the early 20th century, with a war going on and the economy on the brink, food was surely appreciated. Overseas, during that same time, Chilean native Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) expressed his own appreciation for what lay on his kitchen table. Neruda, unlike Porter and Nash, looks deeply into his subject, and writes not just a couple of whimsical rhyming lines, but entire poems on a single subject that most people barely think twice about. In “Ode to the Onion,” Neruda takes celebration to the level of worshipping. The poem reveals so many characteristics of the onion that Neruda proves to be a realism extractor with words. The ode begins: “Onion/ luminous flask,/ your beauty formed/ petal by petal/ crystal scales expanded you/ and in the secrecy of the dark earth/ your belly grew round with dew” (Full Woman, 51). Neruda not only worships the onion, but recognizes it as a living thing. Neruda’s verb choices (formed, expanded, grew, appeared) depict the vegetable as an ever-changing element. Not only do his word choices illustrate an appreciation for his subject, but they also raise it to a level that’s almost human. He does something similar in “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” (translated by Robin Robertson). Here, he compares the journey of the tuna to that of “lettuces” and “bunches of carrots.” Here is stanza two:
by the earth’s green froth
bunches of carrots—
the sea’s truth, survived
the unknown, the
darkness, the depths
of the sea,
le grand abime,
to that deepest night” (Poetry Foundation).
Neruda’s signature form, as it appears on paper, is long and thin and involves short lines, mostly one or two words, which create a feeling of quickness for the reader. “Ode to a Large Tuna” is no exception, as the 85 lines of the poem move swiftly, almost mimicking how a tuna moves in the water. The language in the last fifteen lines leans toward honoring the tuna, and like he does with the onion, he raises his subject to a level that’s human. Here are the last fifteen lines:
a solitary man of war
among these frail vegetables,
your flanks and prow
as if you were still
a well-oiled ship of the wind,
of the sea: unflawed,
the waters of death” (Poetry Foundation).
Neruda is not alone in his way of portraying food; many poets have put food on a pedestal, writing about it as if it were six feet tall with a heartbeat, otherwise known as personification. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) gives us an example of personification. He gives wine a soul and makes it sing in “The Soul of the Wine.” It begins, “’Dear mankind--/ dear and disinherited! Break the seal/ of scarlet wax that darkens my glass jail,/ and I shall bring you light and brotherhood!/ How long you labored on the fiery hills/ among the needful vines! I know it cost/ fanatic toil to make me what I am,/ and I shall not be thankless or malign” (230). Wine is clearly personified here as showing it’s appreciation to mankind, for without its efforts, wine wouldn’t exist at all. It can be compared to a child thanking his parents for conceiving him and giving him life.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) personifies the subject in her poem “Mushrooms.” Like Baudelaire, Plath writes in the first-person from the mushrooms’ point of view. “Mushrooms” consists of eleven stanzas, each with three lines, describing the life of a mushroom. Here, the second half of the poem: “We/ diet on water,/ On crumbs of shadow,/ Bland-mannered, asking/ Little or nothing./ So many of us!/ So many of us!/ We are shelves, we are/ Tables, we are meek,/ We are edible,/ Nudgers and shovers/ In spite of ourselves./ Our kind multiplies:/ We shall by morning/ Inherit the earth./ Our foot’s in the door” (105). Plath’s technique involves a minimalist approach to words; she chooses words wisely, and gets her point across: mushrooms are a living entity. And by her choice of words, the reader is made to realize that mushrooms (like anything that’s alive) are so many different things, depending on how they’re viewed.
John Updike (1932-2009) uses personification in “Food.” His technique varies from Plath’s in that he allows the subject (food, in general) to speak to its owner. As was mentioned earlier in Baudelaire’s work, food’s appreciation to humans surfaces here, as well. Updike writes:
“It is always there,
Man’s real best friend.
It never bites back;
it is already dead.
It never tells us we are lousy lovers
or asks us for an interview.
It simply begs, Take me;
it cries out, I’m yours.
Mush me all up, it says;
Whatever is you, is pure” (15).
Updike lightly mocks the common dog owner or, alternatively, he animalizes it, as he compares it to “Man’s real best friend”—a pet dog. What food says to humans in the poem (“Take me; I’m yours; Mush me all up; Whatever is you, is pure”) signifies a bowing down of sorts; food is honored to be at the mercy of the human mouth.
Donald Hall (1928- ) personifies cheese in “O Cheese” by way of complimenting each variety and noting its human attribute. He provides the reader with a litany of cheeses. Stanzas four and five:
“O cheeses that dance in the moonlight, cheeses
that mingle with sausages, cheeses of Stonehenge.
O cheeses that are shy, that linger in the doorway,
eyes looking down, cheeses spectacular as fireworks.
Reblochon openly sexual; Caerphilly like pine trees, small
at the timberline; Port du Salut in love; Caprice des Dieux
eloquent, tactful, like a thousand-year old hostess;
and Dolcellate, always generous to a fault” (188).
This poem is similar to Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion” in that it bows down to the subject with its language: “O cheeses;” and he calls them “spectacular,” “eloquent,” and “generous.” Hall includes fourteen different cheeses, and describes many more that he doesn’t identify. Contemporary poets often show details of their subject very well. They’re in touch with what they’re writing about, and it makes for an entirely different reading experience compared to past poets who wrote about food from a distance, using general terms (as Shakespeare did) and casting if off as a metaphor for something else.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) introduces another unique point-of-view in “Feast.” In three stanzas, she conveys to the reader that the feeling of thirst and hunger are perhaps more satisfying than the act of fulfilling those desires. She begins, “I drank at every vine./ The last was like the first./ I came upon no wine/ So wonderful as thirst” (158). Although she’s not displaying the kind of personification Neruda, Hall and Plath use, St. Vincent Millay forces the reader to think about thirst and hunger in a new light. The concept of “Feast” is not commonplace, but proves the subject’s versatility. There are so many ways in which to write about food and all that encompasses it.
Whether directly, or indirectly through metaphor, or via personification, poets who use these writing methods provide evidence that food can be exposed in varying ways. Poets write about food like so many write of death’s inevitability, and of love’s grandeur and pain; it is timeless. What’s worth examining is the contrast in how past poets and contemporary ones incorporate food into their writing. As I’ve illustrated thus far, poets leading up to the twentieth century use food as a vehicle to illustrate something else such as social importance, and love or loneliness; food proves to be the perfect metaphor and easy to personify. However, there is little to no personal connection with the food itself, with the exception of the eastern poets. And although contemporary poets will use food to illustrate similar subjects, their approach is more personal. In the remaining pages, I will examine the work of contemporary poets who delve more deeply into their subjects compared to past poets. Not only that, but in examining the works of poets writing in at least the mid-20th century, I will uncover that a more modern idealism of food surfaces. They incorporate topics such as dietary trends and government campaigns on what to eat, which lend a political perspective to their poetry. And sometimes a single food poem can seem like a reflection of how the poet sees the world. Even a sense of mortality can be realized. Many foods, after all, are alive at some point in their duration on earth. Of course, this is just one reader speculating, but some contemporary poets write food poems that delve so deeply into a personal reflection of themselves or the world around them, that the reader cannot help but be awed.
Maxine Kumin (1928- ), for example, writes of food with a serious tone in her poem “Appetite.” In it, the narrator divulges a personal reflection of the memory of her father eating raspberries and cream. Here are the two final stanzas: “My father/ with the sigh of a man/ who has seen all and been redeemed/ said time after time/ as he lifted his spoon/ men kill for this” (177). These lines exude humility, and show food as something to be appreciated. Kumin, one can suppose, could have used any object to illustrate her point; the house where her father lived, the car he drove, even the people he knew, but raspberries and cream end up as the poem’s main focus—treasured as if they were a pot of gold.
Elizabeth Alexander (1962- ) also delves into a personal reflection in “Butter.” It begins with the narrator’s reflection, and continues into mouthwatering descriptions. Alexander’s verb choices enliven the subject: butter melts, stains, glazes, softens, disappears, and is ultimately licked. The narrator draws upon her memory to illustrate images of butter, and by the end of the poem, a lively image of it has been achieved. Like Donald Hall gives us in “O Cheese,” Alexander’s in-depth descriptions raise the subject to a higher level. This poem has butter smeared all over it; 25 lines of greasy, yellow, lick-worthy butter. One might call it a love poem. About four lines into the one-stanza, free-flowing poem, Alexander describes a litany of dishes, all including butter: “…butter melting in small pools in the hearts/ of Yorkshire puddings, butter better/ than gravy staining white rice yellow,/ butter glazing corn in slipping squares,/ butter the lava in white volcanoes/ of hominy grits, butter softening/ in a white bowl to be creamed with white sugar…” (36 ). The poem is intensely indulgent, almost as if Alexander is obsessed with the subject, even if it’s just for these 25 lines: proof that food, like a lover, can be the object of one’s desire.
Butter definitely proves to be a versatile ingredient, as the poem “Onions” by William Matthews begins with a lovely image of it as it “slithers and swirls across the floor of the sauté pan…” He follows that up with “Then a tumble of onions.” Matthews goes on using four of the seven stanzas to describe the transformation of an onion as it cooks. Like Neruda does in “Ode to the Onion, Matthews uses syntactically pleasing language in his description. For example, consider the following lines and their use of alliteration:
“…there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on
weeping as you go on in, through
the moist middle skins, the sweetest
and thickest, and you can go on
in to the core, to the bud-like,
acrid, fibrous skins densely
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most
pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare…” (186).
As the poem begins by saying, more or less, that happiness is dicing onions, Matthews ends the poem with the aftermath of the meal:
“…It’s there when you clean up
and rinse the wine glasses and make
a joke, and you leave the minutest
whiff of it on the light switch,
later, when you climb the stairs.”
Although both Neruda and Matthews end their respective “onion” poems by writing about the scent of the vegetable, it’s Matthews who incorporates a human perspective into the final lines.
However poets enjoy writing about the pleasures of food, sometimes their writing turns to political viewpoints. Take a poem written by Joe Hughes titled “Health Fanatics.” It mocks government suggestion on what’s healthy, and indulges in what’s allegedly not. It’s reminiscent of the work of Nash because of its rhyming wit, but it’s clearly more contemporary, as it mentions the “five-a-day” campaign the U.S. government put into place in 1992 (Ryan). Hughes begins with four stanzas, all with an ABCB rhyming scheme about what healthy people eat today. Stanza one illustrates: “Down amongst the cabbages,/ In amongst the peas,/ Trying to get their five-a-day/ To keep the Government pleased.” Stanza five completes the poem with a rant of rebellion, describing what the narrator does to feel good, even if it’s the opposite of what the government suggests:
“Me – I drink my brandy,
Eat chocolate as a treat,
I’ll try some fruit much later
When I’ve eaten my red meat.
I toast all health fanatics,
Even those who race upon the track,
Then light another cigarette –
The last one in the pack!” (Hughes)
Maya Angelou (1928- ) writes in a similar way about indulging in food, but at the same time she rejects what we know as vegetarianism in her poem “The Health Food Diner.” Like Hughes’, Angelou’s clever and whimsical poem consists of ABCB stanzas. She mocks vegetarians, whom she refers to as “health food folks,” and refers to all others as “smoking carnivores.” The poem begins, “No sprouted wheat and soya shoots/ And Brussels in a cake,/ Carrot straw and spinach raw/ (Today I need a steak)” (185). The stanzas continue in this fashion, cheering for meat and shunning what is believed to be healthful. The poem’s tone wreaks of rebellion; a common steak-lover bashing political hype on what’s healthy. It’s really a no-holds-barred technique to express what one loves, despite what is allegedly healthful or otherwise.
Jane Kenyon’s “Man Eating” touches upon a political controversy, as well. Here, the narrator acknowledges that the world “might come to an end.” Even with such a large statement, her concern is for a stranger she’s been watching: “…what about/ this man, so completely present/ to the little carton with its cool/ sweet food, which has caused no animal/ to suffer, and which he is eating/ with a pearl-white plastic spoon” (274). What’s ironic about the poem is that the man has caused no animal to suffer, but he is eating his yogurt with a plastic spoon, which, any environmentally savvy person knows, will spend years in a landfill waiting to disintegrate. However ironic it is, the political aspect of it does not override the poem’s true purpose: to watch a man eating, all the while knowing this could be the very last thing he does, as the narrator considers the end of the world.
Like Kenyon realizes food’s sacred place on earth, she also acknowledges human mortality through writing about the subject. In “The Pear,” she examines the inevitability of growing older. The last stanza illustrates: “It happens subtly, as when a pear/ spoils from the inside out,/ and you may not be aware/ until things have gone too far” (150). Kenyon uses the pear as a metaphor for aging. Thus, we are reminded again that food (the kind that grows) is alive, and acts as a touchstone for humans, as we see it grow, and eventually rot; Kenyon relates to this, and acknowledges the death of younger days.
Mary Ruefle (1952- ) also writes of mortality in “Tilapia.” To begin with, she acknowledges that in order to nourish herself, something else must die. Lines two through four: “I feel like eating a little fish fried to death/ with a sprig of parsley over one eye./ You have to engage your dinner in its own mortality!” (64). The curiosity is the detail about putting parsley over one eye, as if to avoid eye contact with her own dinner, which therefore lessens the guilt; if she feels guilty, she doesn’t show it, as it’s clearly a matter of survival of the fittest. But Ruefle continues on, line by line, to divulge the history of the little fish (as told to her by her waiter) about how it came to be popular. About halfway through the poem, she shows immense appreciation and realizes the sacrifice that’s been made for her: “I am invited to partake of its tender core. And thus/ tenderly do I love thee, little fish, even as I suffer/ the death of my mother and the death of my father/ and the death of all our days. I will rinse my mouth./ I will rise from this table and read meaning into the sea” (64). And suddenly this little fish is worth all of these words and actions, if just for ten bites of goodness. Ruefle shows the ultimate appreciation for her tilapia, and also realizes that whatever nourishes her must then vanish from the earth.
Kim Addonizio’s “Eating Together” reveals a similar message, the difference being that it’s not so much about the vanishing of food, but the death of her friend who sits across from her at a restaurant. What’s interesting here is the absence of dialogue, which is what usually ensues among friends at dinner. Words are replaced with actions, many of which are towards the food on the table, or towards the waiter, the blessed one who brings the food. As Mary Ruefle acknowledges her waiter in “Tilapia,” so does the dying friend in Addonizio’s poem. “I know/… what it takes for her to discard/ her man’s cap…/ to look straight at the young waiter/ and smile when he asks/ how we are liking it” (49). What’s noteworthy about Addonizio’s technique is the organic feel of the writing. The free-flowing stanza containing thought after thought, image after image, keeps the reader moving along, clinging to every emotion the narrator reveals. The second half of the poem is especially moving, as the narrator sees her friend in conjunction with the food they share. She describes what her friend eats, and ultimately the reader feels the power of emotion that takes place within the scene. The second half begins:
as though starving—chicken, dolmata,/
the buttery flakes of filo—/
and what’s killing her/
eats, too. I watch her lift/
a glistening black olive and peel/
the meat from the pit, watch/
her fine long fingers, and her face,/
puffy from medication. She lowers/
her eyes to the food, pretending/
not to know what I know. She’s going./
And we go on eating” (49).
The poet Li-Young Lee (1957- ) begins “From Blossoms” with an organic feel, too. However, it’s Lee’s image that’s more organic than his writing technique. The first stanza illustrates: “From blossoms comes/ this brown paper bag of peaches/ we bought from the boy/ at the bend in the road
where we turned toward/ signs painted Peaches” (21). He goes on to write about eating a peach as if he’s eating the whole world, as if he knows how much it means that the earth has given him this sweet thing in which to sink his teeth. He begins the poem with simple description, and moves on to language that conveys surrealism and hope. Lee ultimately expresses the deep appreciation I’ve been pointing out in various contemporary poets. Stanza three expresses this best:
“O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach” (21).
The words “to hold the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite…” mirrors prayer before communion; to give thanks for what one receives is ultimately what Lee writes about here. And he is not the only contemporary poet to write of food in a religious way.
Mary Oliver (1935- ) alludes to religion in “Rice.” This short poem of two stanzas, with six lines each, asks the reader to do more than just eat. In stanza one, Oliver writes about where and how the rice grows, and in stanza two the narrator takes over in a commanding tone:
“I don’t want you just to sit down at the table.
I don’t want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing” (175).
Wendy Cope’s “The Orange” doesn’t command its reader to praise the food; it simply praises it. Three ABCB stanzas make up the poem; the first two about buying the orange and eating it, which made the narrator “so happy.” Then the final stanza, which simply states that “the day was quite easy,” followed by, “I did all the jobs on my list/ And enjoyed them and had some time over./ I love you. I’m glad I exist” (153). This last line comes as a surprise. To whom is the narrator addressing those words? It seems like a prayer, as the narrator clearly expresses an appreciation for the orange, and the ease of the rest of the day. Whether the narrator speaks to the orange, or to God, graciousness is shown for what’s been received.
Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) incorporates a religious backdrop in his poem “A Confession.” The narrator begins by addressing “My Lord,” and then proceeds to list all the pleasures in which he imbibes. The very first pleasure: strawberry jam, which is quickly followed by “And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body./ Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,/ Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves” (76). The question the narrator raises is: “So what kind of prophet am I?” After a litany of desires, evidence of guilt surfaces within the poem. Halfway through, he continues, “For they saw/ How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,/ And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck.” Food and sexual desire go hand in hand here. And according to the narrator, they are pleasures to feel badly about. But still, they are pleasures.
During my research for this thesis, I did not come across many poets who wrote of food as Milosz did: as something guilt-ridden. But as Milosz couples the pleasures of food and sexual desire, so do many of his contemporaries. Richard Wilbur (1921- ) personifies a shallot in his poem titled, “A Shallot.” Although we’ve examined personification of food in this paper already, Wilbur puts a different spin on it. The shallot is no longer just a shallot, but an object of desire. He actually makes the shallot seem attractive by his descriptions. As William Matthews clearly adores the onion, and Maya Angelou loves her steak, Richard Wilbur has a thing for the shallot. He does more than just describe it, however; he addresses the little vegetable directly, as if to woo it with loads of compliments.
“The full cloves
Of your buttocks, the convex
Curve of your belly, the curved
Cleft of your sex—
Out of this corm
That’s planted in strong thighs
The slender stem and radiant
Flower rise” (146).
Thus, we see the shallot in a new light. Suddenly, there is more to food than just the notion of eating it. There is something about it—the smell, the taste, the feel, and according to Wilbur, the look of it, that makes it desirable. In this regard, food and sex suddenly co-mingle, and a new side of the subject is revealed. Charles Simic (1938- ), known for his many poems about breasts, also takes on food as a subject. In fact, sexual desire and hunger go hand-in-hand in many of Simic’s poems. One poem from his Selected Early Poems says it all in one line. The poem is “Untitled:”
“Aunt Lettuce, I want to peek under your skirt” (126).
What’s interesting here is the use of “Aunt,” when Simic could’ve easily used “Miss” or “Ms.” or no prefix at all. It adds an element of taboo to the poem. Despite the flair of incest, what stands out is the image of one lifting up the top layer of a head of iceberg lettuce. There’s something under there the narrator wants.
Simic has a knack for writing about desire. And he considers it an important subject where poetry is concerned. In a 2002 interview led by Michael Hulse, Simic asks a very poignant hypothetical question: “Can one really trust a poet or a metaphysician who never notices the mouth, the belly and the sexual organs, who pretends we live only in the intellect or imagination?” (Simic interview) During the research for this thesis, I discovered that most poets at some point in their writing careers do notice the mouth and the belly (and sometimes the sexual organs) by way of writing about food. Even the original “metaphysicians,” the aforementioned Classical Greek Philosophers, lectured their beliefs with a bottle of wine in hand. Simic, a metaphysician himself, always seems to consider the likes of human nature; by this I mean he includes food and sex, two ultimate pleasures, in much of his writing. Also in his Selected Early Poems is “Sweet Tooth,” which is all about pleasure and desire. It begins, “Take her to that pastry shop on Lexington./ Let her sample cream puffs at the counter,/…If topping or filling spurts down her chin,/ Or even better, down her cleavage,/ Lick it off before it dribbles down her dress” (17). Simic uses food here to achieve sexual fulfillment. And as he does with “Aunt Lettuce…,” he introduces an element of taboo into the poem. Stanza three begins, “The uniformed schoolgirls, holding hands/ In pairs, on their way to the park,/ Are turning their heads…” And what starts out as seemingly innocent date advice, ends up stacked with tempting images. Suddenly, you’re licking pastry cream off of your date’s cleavage as young schoolgirls walk by and stare.
As Simic appeases taste, sight and smell in “Sweet Tooth,” so does he equally tend to them in “Crazy About Her Shrimp.” Twenty lines illustrating a night of love-making, this poem also includes an aspect of domesticity with a woman at the stove. The poem not only touches upon love-making with bodies, but love-making with food, as well. Lines three through seven illustrate: “We keep our mouths full and busy/ Eating bread and cheese/ And smooching in between./ No sooner have we made love,/ Than we are back in the kitchen” (The Voice, 81). Eating and love-making seem to go hand-in-hand in this poem; one desire is equal to another. In lines eleven through sixteen, he writes of the wine “That has run red/ Out of a laughing mouth!/ down her chin/ And on to her naked tits” (81). The lines that proceed put the female body on display: “”I’m getting fat,” she says,/ Turning this way and that way/ Before the mirror” (81)-- all the while the narrative male voice has done nothing but salivate over her nakedness and the food that surrounds it. Ultimately, the narrator “shouts to the gods above”: “I’m crazy about her shrimp!” (81). And by shrimp, he could mean shrimp or tits. Take your pick. Either way, it’s a sultry dinner-date; food and sex combined to create a poem that appeals to every sense in the human body. The bread and cheese, the wine and nakedness, and the shrimp and lovemaking all adhere to appease the desires of human nature.
Although not shy about writing about sexual desire, Charles Simic has the ability to depict human nature in all its forms. Like Emily Dickinson portrays loneliness in her poem “Hunger,” so does Simic in “The Partial Explanation.” He foregoes the sex talk for hints of isolation and loneliness. Except instead of using food as a metaphor as Dickinson does, he uses a “Grimy little luncheonette” as the setting to help illustrate the narrator’s feelings. It begins, “Seems like a long time/ since the waiter took my order” (Selected, 92). He goes on from there to notice the darkening of the restaurant, and a lack of people anywhere. He looks to the table in front of him for comfort: “A glass of ice water/ Keeps me company/ At this table I chose myself/ Upon entering” (92). As if to compensate for his loneliness, he personifies the glass of water, and then ultimately admits the need for human contact in the final stanza: “And a longing/ Incredible longing/ To eavesdrop/ On the conversation/ Of the cooks” (92). Simic begins each line with a capital letter, and in doing so he intensifies the feeling of isolation; he makes it so that each line can stand alone, just as the narrator does in the little, grimy luncheonette.
This feeling of isolation continues in “The Amazing Potato Peeler.” In this poem, the narrator is a spectator to a man on the street who’s selling a new gimmick. The reader quickly builds sympathy for the man who’s “…going to show us how it works,/ On a card table not too steady/ On this cold and windy night./ The cut-rate stores quickly closing,/ A few rat-faced old women/ Scurrying past without a glance,/ And a lone hooker, in scarlet wig,/ Rabbit fur coat, white boots,/ Who rushes over interested” (Selected, 221). And here, Simic presents the reader with a juxtaposition: a hooker and a potato peeler; what could one possibly need with the other? Hookers need to eat, too, which I suppose is the humor in it, and the humility.
“Just for her, he’s peeling a new one,
Himself in bad need of a shave.
No coat on his back, not even a hat—
And his head as bald as a potato” (221).
In the last line, Simic uses a simile to objectify the man’s head: “…as bald as a potato.” Perhaps the term foodify is more apropos for the subject at hand. If food can be personified, then humans can be foodified. After all, what is one without the other?
Charles Simic, amidst his expressions of cream puffs in cleavage and loneliness, proves to be a poet well-versed on the subject of food. He uses it to his full advantage, and the result is a body of work that encompasses food’s vast versatility. In his book, A Fly in the Soup: Memoirs, in which he reveals some of his own personal history with food, Simic takes a stab at the meaning of poetry: “The secret wish of poetry is to stop time” (160). Through the examinations made in this thesis, one might consider Simic to be quite right. When its subject is food, poetry has the ability to stop time, as food is both a timeless and universal subject; it never ages, but transforms. From Li Po’s “Facing Wine” to Shakespeare’s food-based metaphorical lingo, food has proven to be a versatile subject. And in the last century, poets have found a way to personalize it. From Maya Angelou’s love of steak and the buttery reflections of Elizabeth Alexander, to Kim Addonizio’s last supper with a dying friend, food reveals itself as something to be appreciated. And it is, in many ways. The poetry examined in this thesis spills over with food that has been seen, smelled, cooked, tasted and devoured: one of life’s greatest pleasures revealed! In writing these poems, poets have simultaneously managed to describe notions of love, loneliness, death, and desire-- emotions and phases every human being encounters, thus proving food’s universal and malleable quality. From the day we are born, our need for food is inevitable, just as inevitable as our impending death. The difference between the two, however, is simple: food brings pleasure. And, as poets throughout the ages have proven, the pleasure of food never dies.
Addonizio, Kim. What Is This Thing Called Love. New York: W.W. Norton, 04.
Alexander, Elizabeth. Body of Life. Chicago: Tia Chucha Press, 96.
Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems. New York: Random House, 94.
Basho, Matsuo. “Taking Morning Tea.” Trans. Sam Hamill. Sustenance & Desire: A Food Lover’s Anthology of Sensuality and Humor. Ed. Bascove. Jaffrey: David R. Godine, 04.
Baudelaire, Charles. “The Soul of the Wine.” Trans. Richard Howard. Eat, Drink, And Be Merry: Poems about Food and Drink. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Knopf, 03.
Beck, Roger, ed., et al. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston: McDougal Littell, 99.
Cope, Wendy. “The Orange.” Eat, Drink, And Be Merry: Poems about Food and Drink. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Knopf, 03.
Dickinson, Emily. Collected Poems. Eds. Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. New York: Avenel Books, 82.
Hall, Donald. “O Cheese.” Sustenance & Desire: A Food Lover’s Anthology of Sensuality and Humor. Ed. Bascove. Jaffrey: David R. Godine, 04.
Hughes, Joe. “Health Fanatics.” www.poemhunter.com/poem/health-fanatics/ Copyright www.poetryroom.net by Joe Hughes.
Kenyon, Jane. Collected Poems. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 05.
Kramer, Samuel Noah, ed. From the Poetry of Sumer. London: University of California Press, 79.
Kumin, Maxine. “Appetite.” Sustenance & Desire: A Food Lover’s Anthology of Sensuality and Humor. Ed. Bascove. Jaffrey: David R. Godine, 04.
Lawrence, D. H. “Figs.” Eat, Drink, And Be Merry: Poems about Food and Drink. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Knopf, 03.
Lee, Li-Young. Rose: Poems. Brockport, NY: BOA Editions; St. Paul: distributed by Bookslinger, 86.
Matthews, William. Selected Poems and Translations, 1969-1991. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 92.
Milosz, Czeslaw. “A Confession.” Sustenance & Desire: A Food Lover’s Anthology of Sensuality and Humor. Ed. Bascove. Jaffrey: David R. Godine, 04.
Mish, Frederick C., ed., et al. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 88.
Nash, Ogden. Custard and Company. Comp. Quentin Blake. Boston: Little Brown , 80.
Works Cited (cont.)
Nash, Ogden. “Reflection on Ice-Breaking.” Eat, Drink, And Be Merry: Poems about Food and Drink. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Knopf, 03.
Neruda, Pablo. Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: HarperCollins, 97.
Neruda, Pablo. “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market.” The Poetry Foundation, 2009. Trans. Robin Robertson. n. pag. Web. 19 Oct. 09. www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179412.
Oliver, Mary. “Rice.” Sustenance & Desire: A Food Lover’s Anthology of Sensuality and Humor. Ed. Bascove. Jaffrey: David R. Godine, 04.
Plath, Sylvia. “Mushrooms.” Eat, Drink, And Be Merry: Poems about Food and Drink. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Knopf, 03.
Po, Li. “Facing Wine.” Trans. David Hinton. Eat, Drink, And Be Merry: Poems about Food and Drink. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Knopf, 03.
Porter, Cole. “Sunday Morning Breakfast Time.” Eat, Drink, And Be Merry: Poems about Food and Drink. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Knopf, 03.
Ruefle, Mary. Post Meridian. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 00.
Ryan, Linda, Jennifer Anderson and Bonnie Sherman. “The Effect of Nutrition Education on Improving Fruit and Vegetable Consumption of Youth.” eJournal of Extension. 33.5, October 1995: n. pag. Web. 18 November 09. http://joe.org/joe/1995october/a3.php.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. London: Thomson Learning, 01.
Simic, Charles. “Charles Simic in conversation with Michael Hulse.” Interview. London: Between the Lines, 02.
Simic, Charles. A Fly In the Soup: Memoirs. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 02.
Simic, Charles. Selected Early Poems. New York: George Braziller, 99.
Simic, Charles. The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected late and new poems. New York: Harcourt, 03.
St. Vincent Millay, Edna. Collected Poems. New York: HarperCollins, 90.
Updike, John. “Food.” Eat, Drink, And Be Merry: Poems about Food and Drink. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Knopf, 03.
Wilbur, Richard. Collected Poems, 1943-2004. Orlando: Harcourt, 04.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Foreword Mary Gordon. New York: Harcourt, 89.