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!