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A Readable Feast: Poems To Feed 'The Hungry Ear'

Nov 22, 2012
Originally published on November 22, 2012 4:45 am

This Thanksgiving, as hearty aromas fill the house, take a moment to savor a different kind of nourishment — poetry about food.

The Hungry Ear, a new collection, celebrates the pleasures and the sorrows of food with poems from Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath and dozens more. Poet Kevin Young cooked up — or edited — this readable feast. He tells NPR's Renee Montagne that, much like the best meals, the best poems are made from scratch.

"I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain," he says. "And that's where food comes from, and so there's this common link."

Many of the poems included in the collection focus on a particular food. Take, for example, Elizabeth Alexander's mouthwatering "Butter":

... Growing up
we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon
and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles,
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, butter disappearing into
whipped sweet potatoes, with pineapple,
butter melted and curdy to pour
over pancakes, butter licked off the plate
with warm Alaga syrup ...

Then there's William Carlos Williams' famous ode to plums, "This Is Just To Say," which reads like a note posted on a refrigerator:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

According to Young, Williams' poem "is asking us to pay a little bit of attention to the language of food, the language of relationships — the kind of coldness, but also this precious sweetness."

"Bacon & Eggs," Howard Nemerov's snack of a poem, flies by but leaves a lasting impression:

The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.

Finally, Irish poet Seamus Heaney's "Oysters" mulls over the experience of eating the shellfish:

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

... I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb ...

These verses show the poets' deep, personal love of food, an affection Young explores in his introduction.

"One of the things I think [poets] enjoy about a great meal is that it goes away," Young says, "that you make a terrific meal for friends and family, and if you succeed, it's gone. And there's this pleasure in that because it's exactly the opposite of writing a poem or writing anything. You are struggling and struggling, and finishing means it's permanent, or at least feels that way."

But the act of gathering for a meal also has long-lasting effects. In "Perhaps the World Ends Here," Joy Harjo delves into what really happens around the kitchen table:

... It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh at us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

According to Young, "There's ... this desire in [poetry] to understand the common table, the place where we all share and are all equal before. And I think that is very much central to both the book [and] this thinking about food and its meaning and its pleasures."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On this Thanksgiving Day, let's take a few minutes to savor some poetry - poetry infused with the flavors of food: "The Hungry Ear," a new collection celebrating the pleasures, and sometimes sorrows, of food and drink with by Rita Dove, Yates, Pablo Neruda, Rumi and many more. Poet Kevin Young cooked up this feast as editor of "The Hungry Ear." He joined us to talk about some of the poems. Good morning.

KEVIN YOUNG: Morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with butter, because what would Thanksgiving be without butter? And it's celebrated by several of your poets in this collection. And one delightful poem is by Elizabeth Alexander, and it's a bit on the long side, but why don't you read that for us?

YOUNG: I'd be happy to. This is "Butter." (Reading) My mother loves butter more than I do, more than anyone. She pulls chunks off the stick and eats it plain, explaining cream spun around into butter. Growing up, we ate turkey cutlets sautéed in lemon and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles, 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, butter disappearing into whipped potatoes, with pineapple, butter melted and curdy to pour over pancakes, butter licked off the plate with warm Alaga syrup. When I picture the good old days, I am grinning greasy with my brother, having watched the tiger chase his tail and turn to butter. We are Mumbo and Jumbo's children, despite historical revision, despite our parents' efforts glowing from the inside out, 100 megawatts of butter.

MONTAGNE: Oh boy. And all of these poems that focus on...many of them are odes to a single piece of food. Let's hear one from William Carlos Williams, which is called "This is Just to Say."

YOUNG: "This is Just to Say": (Reading) I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me, they were delicious, so sweet and so cold.

Of course, that's like a note you post on your fridge and famously that's sort of a found poem. And this poem is asking us to pay a little bit of attention to the language of food, the language of relationships, the kind of coldness - but also this precious sweetness.

MONTAGNE: These poems do use words as ingredients in a way. They're...

YOUNG: Yeah, that's right.

MONTAGNE: And you write the best poems, like the best meals, are made from scratch.

YOUNG: Yeah, I think so. I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain, and that's where food comes from. And so there's this common link, I think. There's also this desire in the poem to understand the common table, the place where we all share and are all equal before. And I think that is very much central to, both the book, but also this thinking about food and its meaning and its pleasures.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, well, its pleasures are abundant in this collection. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, he writes of oysters.

YOUNG: Right. (Reading) Our shells clacked on the plates. My tongue was a filling estuary, my palate hung with starlight. As I tasted the salty Pleiades, Orion dipped his foot into the water.

Well, and there's a beautiful part after this where he mentioned driving to the coast and toasting friendship, laying down a perfect memory. And then he says: (Reading) In the clear light, like poetry of freedom leaning in from the sea, I ate the day, deliberately, that its tang might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

MONTAGNE: So, he ate the day, which almost seems what a poet does.

YOUNG: Yeah, every day is another meal. And there's a part in the introduction where I talk about how poets certainly love to eat, and some would say drink. And one of the things I think they enjoy about a great meal is that it goes away. You make a terrific meal for friends or family, and if you succeed it's gone. And there's this pleasure in that, because it's exactly the opposite of writing a poem or writing anything. You are struggling and struggling and finishing means it's permanent or at least feels that way.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, there's the almost opposite, which is the quality of just a quick hit, like a pop in the mouth. There's Howard Nemerov's gem of a poem called "Bacon & Eggs." Just two lines: (Reading) The chicken contributes by the pig gives his all.

YOUNG: I love that poem.

MONTAGNE: Easy to memorize too. But let's end, at the table, with one last poem. And it's a day when families will be gathering around kitchen and dining room tables. This is by the poet Joy Harjo.

YOUNG: This is a beautiful poem. (Reading) Perhaps the world ends here. The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So, it has been since creation and it will go on. We chase chickens or dogs away from it, babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it. It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women. At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers. Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh at us, at our poor, falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table. This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun. Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror, a place to celebrate the terrible victory. We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here. At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks. Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

YOUNG: Thanks for having me. Happy Thanksgiving.

MONTAGNE: Poet Kevin Young teaches English and creative writing at Emory University. He's the editor of the new collection "The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.