Saturday, August 7, 2010

Poetry Prompt #17 - Food in Poetry

Food as a subject for poetry has a long history. Poets of China’s ancient Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (about 1127-221 BC) wrote of celebratory foods; and in early Greek poetry, feasting and everyday eating are found in the Iliad and in the Odyssey. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Baucis and Philemon share their food with supposed beggars who are actually gods in disguise and who reward the couple’s generosity. 

Defined as “over-indulgence and over-consumption of food or drink,” gluttony has figured as a moral concern in poetry. In Dante’s Inferno, gluttony is severely punished in hell, and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner sermonizes on gluttony (lines 219-262) and makes it clear that gluttony is a cardinal sin. “To eat or not to eat” becomes a moral dilemma in Book 2 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which echoes the Bible (Genesis 3:1-13) when Guyon is tempted with a tree of golden apples. In Paradise Lost, Milton begins his tale of humankind’s fall with the biblical story of Eve eating the forbidden fruit and uses numerous food metaphors; Milton, like Chaucer, connects gluttony with sin.

Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper” offers a menu of salad, mutton, fowl, cheese, fruit, pastry, and wine. In his “To Penshurst,” the menu includes pheasant, carp, eels, cherries, plums, figs, grapes, quinces, apricots, peaches, cake, nuts, apples, cheese, pears, beer, bread, and wine (whew!). In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” milk and honey are linked to an altered state of mind; in John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” the beautiful woman destroys a knight by feeding and seducing him; and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s English idyll “Audley Court” is a “picnic” of food imagery in a poem that is not about food. 

Poets have also used food imagery to express spiritual concerns. T. S. Eliot’s question “Do I dare to eat a peach?” conveys the speaker’s spiritual/emotional weariness in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hunger,” hunger and dining signify loneliness and love. 

On the lighter side of the poetry pancake, Robert Burns’s “Address to a Haggis” is traditionally recited when the signature Scottish dish is served; Robert Southey’s ode-like “To a Goose” ends with “ … this I know, that we pronounced thee fine, / Seasoned with sage and onions. And port wine;” and Sydney Smith wrote recipes in verse, including “Recipe for a Salad” and a poem   about roast mutton. In Elemental Odes, Pablo Neruda wrote about artichokes, lemons, and olive oil (and the use of the oil in mayonnaise and salad dressing). Ogden Nash wrote light verse about food in such poems as “The Clean Platter” in which he stated, “When I ponder my mind / I consistently find / It is glued / On food.” D. H. Lawrence wrote poems entitled “Pomegranate,” “Peach,” “Medlars and Sorb-Apples,” “Figs,” and “Grapes;” and William Carlos Williams immortalized plums in his famous “This Is Just to Say.” 

In “The Bistro Styx,” Rita Dove wrote of a modern young woman’s journey to Paris that is analogous to Persephone’s descent into the underworld. Her meal at the Bistro Styx includes Chateaubriand, Camembert, pears, figs, parsley, bread, and Pinot Noir. 

Oh, and lest we forget, in poetry, drink qualifies as food – consider William Butler Yeats’s “A Drinking Song.”

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

Now, with Diane Lockward’s great inspiration (previous post) and a bit of food poetry history here, what will you write about food (and/or drink)?

1. Is there a poem waiting for you in the smell or taste of a particular food, a poem in which you describe food in terms of sensory perceptions? 

2. What foods do you associate with your life, special people, memorable times, laughter or tears?

3. What food can you use as a metaphor for an experience or a relationship? Is there a food that you might compare to a present or former romance? 

4. Do you associate a certain food with a dinner table conversation or any “talk” that was important to you?

5. How about a “food fight” poem? (Can you make it metaphorical for a struggle or challenge you’ve faced?)

Remember: Food imagery can enhance a poem that's not about food at all!


  1. I hope you enjoy these old English nursery rhymes that incorporate food. They're not “art poetry,” but the cultural literacy and actual meanings of the rhymes are enhanced by food references that seem in sync with this prompt. (To research the actual meanings behind what appear to be simple nursery rhymes, go to


    1. Oranges and lemons
    Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
    When will you pay me?
    Say the bells of Old Bailey.
    When I grow rich,
    Say the bells of Shoreditch.

    2. Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
    His wife could eat no lean;
    And so, betwixt them both,
    They licked the platter clean.

    3. Little Jack Horner
    Sat in a Corner,
    Eating of Christmas pie;
    He put in his thumb,
    And pulled out a plum,
    And said what a good boy was I.

    4. Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
    Eating her curds and whey;
    Along came a spider who sat down beside her
    And frightened Miss Muffet away.

    5. Little Tommy Tucker
    Sing for your supper.
    What shall he sing for?
    White bread and butter.
    How can he cut it
    Without any knife?
    How can he marry
    Without any wife?

    6. Old Mother Hubbard
    Went to the cupboard
    To fetch her poor dog a bone;
    But when she came there,
    The cupboard was bare
    And so the poor dog had none.

    7. Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man;
    Bake me a cake as fast as you can.
    Prick it and prick it, and mark it with a B,
    And put it in the oven for Baby and me.

    8. Pease Porridge hot, Pease Porridge cold,
    Pease Porridge in the pot nine days old.
    Some like it hot, some like it cold,
    Some like it in the pot nine days old.

    9. Pussy cat, pussy cat, wilt thou be mine,
    Thou shalt neither wash dishes nor feed the swine:
    But sit on a cushion and sew a silk seam,
    And eat fine strawberries, sugar and cream.

    10. Simple Simon met a pieman,
    Going to the fair;
    Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
    Let me taste your ware.
    Said the pieman to Simple Simon,
    Show me first your penny;
    Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
    Indeed I have not any.

    11. Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
    One a penny two a penny – Hot cross buns.
    If you have no daughters, give them to your sons.
    One a penny two a penny – Hot cross buns.

    12. This little pig went to market,
    This little pig stayed home,
    This little pig had roast beef,
    This little pig had none,
    And this little pig cried, wee-wee-wee
    All the way home.

    13. The Queen of Hearts,
 she made some tarts,

    All on a summer’s day;
 the Knave of Hearts,

    He stole the tarts,
 and took them clean away.
    The King of Hearts
 called for the tarts,

    And beat the knave full sore;
 the Knave of Hearts

    Brought back the tarts,
 and vowed he’d steal no more.

  2. I owned a succession of stuffed pandas until I was 12-13, the last panda having been involved in a terrible collision with some food, which, as far as he was concerned, might have fallen from the sky. I fed the pandas, took them to the bathroom and put blankets on them for their naps.


    I had a succession of
    teddy bears my father
    picked up on the Lower

    East Side. I'd pretend-feed
    them, take them to the toilet
    and position them on the seat.

    I'd let them nap- life's essentials.
    Weren't the baby peaches good?
    I'd shake a head yes. The last

    bear led to a battle between
    my brother Barry and me,
    that part in a play the audience

    sees coming. I carried apple
    strudel and milk from the
    kitchen to my room, my brother

    propped the panda on top
    of a slightly open door. When
    I pushed with my shoulder,

    Final Bear fell on the milk and
    cake. When his leg dried, all
    the bristles were white-stiff, as

    if he had been paralyzed or shot.
    It was like Chester Goode from
    Gunsmoke, except he was no

    good to me anymore. I cut
    his leg open at the hip joint
    and pulled the stuffing out. That

    was the end of Teddy, radical
    surgery. I left childhood with one
    leg dangling at the incinerator.

    Copyright © by Robert Rosenbloom. All rights reserved.

  3. Thanks, Bob's Mustangs, for the great nursery rhymes that include mention of food. Thanks, too, for including the nursery rhyme meanings URL – some fascinating history and social commentary behind the rhymes.

  4. Thanks bloom306 (another Bob)! This is such a good poem, and a great example of how food imagery can enhance a poem that's not really about food. Superb "dismount!"

  5. An Excerpt from "Nightmares in the Forest"

    We eat fresh tomatoes and the hot
    bread that mother wrapped in a red
    and white checked napkin, the

    feta cheese always separate in wax paper.
    And the drinking water – always expensive –
    fifty cents per glass from the kiosk.

    Copyright © 2010 by Basil Rouskas. All Rights Reserved.
    From Redrawing Borders
    Forthcoming October 2010 from Finishing Line Press
    Pre-Publication Orders at:

  6. Thanks for posting, Basil. I remember this poem (beyond the excerpt here) with its rich food imagery and the incredible story of your father, the lost ship, and the wonderful conclusion. Can't wait to see this poem and all the others when your book is in print.