Food and poetry go together. Where one is a feast for the mouth, the other is a feast for the tongue. Where one picks up on the crunch of celery, another hears the words in a poetry reading. I heard about The Hungry Ear by Kevin Young and knew that I needed to read it. Having already sunk into his anthology on grief, “The Art of Losing,” I knew he would outfit an anthology on food and poetry with the same thoughtful regard of incorporating fresh voices along with seasoned ones.
So much of what he said in his six page introduction found me nodding my head in assent, whether he considered that “Thanksgiving remains the only homemade meal many Americans still have” or how “[f]ood like poetry, after all, is a necessity.” And perhaps the two share more in common than most people think. I would not hesitate to say most Americans don’t see the necessity of poetry and the particular way it nourishes the spirit as food nourishes the body.
Each chapter opens with a quote, often from beloved voices from the food writing community. A pithy saying about diet food from Julia Child precedes a section dedicated to Meat and Potatoes. Wendell Berry’s quote that “eating is an agricultural act” opens the First Harvest section and I recently discovered, is also painted above the door of Eataly, an upscale slow food grocery store in Manhattan. Yes, poetry and food are certainly in conversation more than we think.
Like many cookbooks, “The Hungry Ear” is laid out by season- where the book opens with poems about blackberries by poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Galway Kinnell and Seamus Heaney, it circles back at the end of the book to a “blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea / Somewhere at the end of it, heaving” by Sylvia Plath. This ordering of large chunks of the book gives a nod to seasonal eating. Within the seasons, natural associations play out into small sectional chunks. In the larger Wintering portion, these smaller sections include Soup Lines & Staples laden with poems that address hunger before turning a corner to tackle Meat and Potatoes and then a selection of Offerings.
It seems fitting with a book release date of October to start in First Harvest before making its way into Giving Thanks with its anticipated Thanksgiving poems like Sharon Olds’ “First Thanksgiving” that denotes the anticipation of a daughter at college returning home for Thanksgiving or a number of fish poems including a personal favorite, “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop. Adrienne Su’s “Four Sonnets About Food” stands out as a poem in this section that both speaks of the interconnectedness of people and what it means to nourish another.
For food preservers, there is an entire portion devoted to “Churning and Preserving” with a poem by Young that captures the spirit of “The Preserving” so well. The poem starts, “Summer meant peeling: peaches, / pears, July, all carved up.” This line pulls in someone who practices canning so easily, letting them slip into a season by the act of peeling and carving known only too well. It scents the kitchen once again with the heady smell of peaches. Of course, there are poems to butter and a poem called “O Cheese” by Donald Hall to bring a smile in all of its descriptive aromatic glory.
Food teaches lessons on living and what it means to be human, bringing that nagging sense of shared necessity Young mentions in the introduction to assert itself again. This is evident in “Hot” by Craig Arnold, a narrative poem that starts with two friends, a game of “chicken” involving chiles and a looming sense to outdo one another until the narrator finds, in the end, the cost is far too high. Then an everyday cup of “Coffee” takes on new meanings in the hands of Matthew Dickman: “Once, I had a brother / who used to sit and drink his coffee black, smoke / his cigarettes and be quiet for a moment / before his brain turned its Armadas against him, wanting to burn / down / his cities and villages.” William Carlos Williams’ notes a lesson learned through observation in “To a Poor Old Woman,” where a woman eats plums from a paper bag. He muses, “They taste good to her / They taste good / to her. They taste / good to her” – through the use of four words ordered and then re-ordered, the reader sees scarcity of choice and an unexpected appreciation.
Where food nourishes the body, poetry nourishes the soul. In the food community, the tide of popular thought continues to turn in the direction of slow food, the revival of real foods and nourishing traditions. People want to know where their food comes from and are demanding more transparency from the purveyors and manufacturers. In some cities and neighborhoods, this quest for information is just blooming; in other places, these questions are commonplace. To this, Young postulates, “and if there’s hope for what we insist we and our children eat, this may mean a world where poetry too can return to the table, where not just conversation, but culture, is made.”
In “The Hungry Ear,” the appetite is whet and sometimes left unsatisfied. Poems do not always bring answers but perhaps instigate more questions. Poems rejoice in the details that make life more meaningful. Just as the ingredients and method in a recipe provide direction, the poems in this collection point the way to a type of living that probes deeper than what the hurried American livelihood typically resembles. And that necessity to slow down and chew well truly is a gift of poetry.
The poems ask the reader to chew slowly and consider the cost of culture clash and globalization, as in “Coca-Cola and Coco FrÍo” by MartÍn Espada. They ask to question the currency of the current pace of life as in “The Orange” by Campbell McGrath. And sometimes they just ask you to sit and smile like the watermelon slices in Terrance Hayes’ “Sonnet.” If you heed the directive you might find yourself transformed as in “Potatoes” by Linda Hogan where “[w]e taste starch / turn into sugar in our mouths.” Indulge your hungry ear, and you might find you’ve been famished, hungering for poetry.