Taste is an involving sense, an immediate sense, a memory triggering sense, and because it revolves around something we all do—eat—we can use it in our writing to connect viscerally with the reader.
Everything Ruth talked about in last week’s post about taste applies to poetry as much as it does to fiction, so in this post, I’m going to share with you how some poets have used food and meals and the rituals around food to draw the reader into their poems.
We all have tastes we like and those we don’t: comfort tastes, bad tastes, tastes that make us fearful, tastes that remind us of childhood. Each of these has emotions attached: joy, fear, disgust, nostalgia, longing… The simple detail of food can concentrate the emotion in a poem.
In these two examples, notice the difference in emotions. “Edible Child” is full of love and gentleness; The excerpt from “Feast Days” is lonely and sad. Both draw on our knowledge of the foods mentioned and the state of that food. In the first poem, the tastes are good and sweet and fresh, like the child. In the second, the food is rotting and unappetizing.
by Elisabeth Rowe
I bend to breathe your
melon-scented infant skin,
I taste the soft bloom
on your plum-skin arms,
tickle my nose on the hairs
of your gooseberry legs,
nibble your fillet toes.
once upon a time
I heard my mother’s hunger:
I love you so much
I could eat you all up.
Excerpt from FEAST DAYS
by Annie Dillard
The apples in the cellar
are black, and dying inside their skins.
They pray all night in their bins,
but nobody listens;
they will be neither food nor trees.
Outside the norm
General opinion is often a fickle thing. People who don’t follow the norms tend to be noticed, sometimes mistrusted, or pitied or disliked: eating meat raw, dumpster diving or dumping a full plate of food. Images of baking apple pie or cooking Sunday roast point to family and security and love—unless you create a tension by turning that expectation on its head.
Excerpt from CHRISTMAS EVE: MY MOTHER DRESSING
By Toi Derricotte
Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her;
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was
weighted and bound in its mask.
Excerpt from RETROSPECT IN THE KITCHEN
By Maxine Kumin
After the funeral I pick
forty pounds of plums from your tree…
…stand at midnight…
putting some raveled things
unsaid between us into the boiling pot
of cloves, cinnamon, sugar:
Loves’s royal colour
The burst purple fruit bob up.
The sensory and the sensual
Ah yes! The senses and sex, an inevitable pairing. The hot and the cold.
By Gwynn Scheltema
I want to dip you in honey
all stem and skin and juice
I want to press your flesh to my lips
feel you break in my mouth
like sun through rain
THIS IS JUST TO SAY
By William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Excerpt from I’M MEXICAN
By J Arceo
No, I’m not spicy. Or feisty. Or exotic.
I’m just not bland.
Because my culture is too rich.
Because my hips give in to the beats of a drum.
And my tongue rolls with passion.
Because I come from vibrant colours
And full skirts.
And intricate patterns in my gene pool…
…Because I come from women with rifles and food that
excites you. And the very hands that harvest the land,
hold the very hearts that harvested me.
Excerpt from EATING TOGETHER
By Li-Young Lee
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
By Jonathan Swift
Gently stir and blow the fire,
Lay the mutton down to roast,
Dress it quickly, I desire,
In the dripping put a toast,
That I hunger may remove —
Mutton is the meat I love.
On the dresser see it lie;
Oh, the charming white and red;
Finer meat ne’er met the eye,
On the sweetest grass it fed:
Let the jack go swiftly round,
Let me have it nice and brown’d.
On the table spread the cloth,
Let the knives be sharp and clean,
Pickles get and salad both,
Let them each be fresh and green.
With small beer, good ale and wine,
Oh ye gods! how I shall dine.
And to end, here is a fun poem calling you to action:
HOW TO EAT A POEM
by Eve Merriam
Don’t be polite.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or
fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
to throw away.