Poetry (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
Food has been a topic of poetry for many centuries and in many cultures; the notion that food writing and poetry writing are totally separate ventures is a recent development. Much of our knowledge of eating habits, culinary practices, and food taboos throughout history and around the world comes from poetry. Food in poetry also functions as a powerful symbol of spiritual and moral states, and at other times it is used as a sexual symbol.
The Chinese have a long tradition of including food in poetry, going as far back as the Chou Dynasty (from the 12th century B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E.). There are Chou poems celebrating festive foods of the time, including stewed turtle, fried honey cakes, duck, quail, and good wine, and discussing the preparation of rice. The Shih Ching (Book of Songs) includes food scenes such as lamb sacrifice, in which the aroma of the roasting meat is described and fruit and wine are offered; verses on a feast of rabbit and plenty of wine; a song rejoicing in family togetherness at a feast including such meats as lamb, ox, and tripe, and an abundance of wine; agricultural songs celebrating wheat, millet, barley, plums, cherries, dates, melons, gourds, beans, garlic, and rice (from which wine is made). The culinary abundance of the T'ang Dynasty (61807) is strongly evident in its poetry, which contains paeans to plums, pears, persimmons, jujubes, many kinds of melons, spring wine, and peaches, which were a traditional symbol of immortality in Chinese poetry and painting. Poems were also forums for discussing differences between foods. For instance, the eighth-century poet Chang Chiu-ling used poetry to address the many ways in which lychees and longans are not similar fruits at all, despite their superficial similarities. Poems written during another prosperous period, the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644922), link food and sex, with female beauty and sexuality compared to melons, cherries, and grapes.
Food is also an important presence in classical Western poetry. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are rich with scenes of feasting, as well as of ordinary eating. In a famous scene from the Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew, trying to return by sea to Ithaca, stop at an unknown land whose inhabitants, the Lotus Eaters, offer a lavish banquet to the three men who are sent to explore. The fruit (or the juice from the fruit) that the men consume gives them great pleasure and also makes them forget all thoughts of home and family so that the other crew members must drag them away by force. Homer also describes the feast of roast meat served to Odysseus by Achilles. The Greek poet Hesiod wrote about enjoying good wine with meat and bread. The Roman poet Martial wrote a great deal about foods, such as figs, olives, parsnips, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, chives, shallots, and onions, to name a few. Virgil described milk and cheese in his Georgics, which celebrates the agricultural life and mourns the dissolution of Italy's farms after famers were sent to war. Ovid wrote about olives and grapes in the Amores. In Greek mythology, the six pomegranate seeds eaten by Perse-phone (daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture) in the underworld after her abduction by Hades, are the mythical reason for winter: For each seed consumed, Persephone must spend a month of the year in the underworld, causing her mother to grieve and neglect her work. The story of Persephone and the pomegranate seeds continues to influence contemporary writers. In her collection Mother Love, the American poet Rita Dove writes of a modern young woman's journey to Paris that parallels Persephone's descent into the underworld. Her meal at "the Bistro Styx" includes Chateaubriand, Camembert, pears, figs, parsley, bread, and Pinot Noir. A mourning modern Demeter has a Spartan breakfast of cereal and raisins and puts stones into it.
Roman poets, including Catullus, Horace, and Martial, also wrote dinner-invitation poems. In the invitation poem, the poet cajoles the addressee into coming for dinner. He may describe the foods that are going to be served, talk about the wine that is going to be poured, and describe the entertainments that will be offered. Invitation poems are not only a source of information on what the Romans ate, but also literary documents in themselves. This tradition did not end with the Roman Empire. In the style of the classical invitation poem, Ben Jonson's "Inviting a Friend to Supper" describes a meal of salad, mutton, fowl, cheese, fruit, pastry, and wine. Another, more extensive food catalogue occurs in Jonson's "To Penshurst," which includes pheasant, carp, eels, cherries, plums, figs, grapes, quinces, apricots, peaches, cake, nuts, apples, cheeses, pears, beer, bread, and wine.
In the medieval Arab world, among those with sufficient resources, poetry and food were enjoyed in tandem, in lavish fashion. At banquets given by the caliphs, poems naming each dishnd recounting the spices and herbs used in its preparation, as well as the method of cookingere recited during the dinners, so that the guests might savor the poetry along with the food.
There is food poetry in the Bible, as well. Throughout the Song of Solomon, the male and female narrators compare one another to fruits and other foods. The man's cheeks are compared to a "bed of spices"; the woman's breasts are described as "clusters of grapes" and her nose
Food is inherent to many traditional songs and poems of the Celtic world and in England. For instance, an Irish saying goes: "Rye bread will do you good, / Barley bread will do you no harm, / Wheat bread will sweeten your blood, / Oat bread will strengthen your arm." Early Celtic poems tell of affection for such foods as mushrooms, milk, and colcannon, the Irish dish of mashed potatoes with cabbage or kale. In England, a song once accompanied the churning of butter: "Come, butter, come, / Come, butter, come, / Peter stands at the gate / Waiting for a buttered cake, / Come, butter, come."
In the sonnets, Shakespeare invokes appetite and eating as metaphors for human behavior, beginning with images of famine and gluttony in Sonnet 1, "From fairest creatures we desire increase." In Sonnets 56 ("Sweet love, renew thy force") and 110 ("Alas! 'tis true, I have gone here and there"), appetite represents desire. In Sonnet 75, which opens with "So are you to my thoughts as food to life," appreciation of the beloved is compared to feasting, and the speaker without the beloved is "starvèd for a look." In Sonnet 52, infrequency of "feasts" gives them meaning, and in Sonnet 118, the eating of "eager compounds" and "bitter sauces" is contrasted with the sweetness of the beloved.
Jonathan Swift, whose concern with matters of hunger reached its most famous height with "A Modest Proposal," the essay in which he ironically suggests fighting hunger by eating children, saw fit to write poetry about onions, oysters, and fishmongers. Robert Burns's "Address to a Haggis" is traditionally recited with the serving of the Scottish dish. The English writer Sydney Smith composed recipes in verse, giving instructions for preparing salad dressing and roasting mutton, for instance.
In the twelfth-century Celtic poem "The Vision of Mac Conglinne," Mac Conglinne helps a king overcome his gluttony. The poem, delectable not only to poetry lovers but also to scholars of medieval Ireland, catalogues an outrageous abundance of foods, including salmon, kale, hazelnuts, sausages, bread, cheese, bacon, and especially milk, which is described as being so thick that it must be chewed.
Food in poetry sometimes carries moral significance. In an archetypal episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the poor couple Baucis and Philemon share their meager food supply with beggars, who turn out to be gods in disguise and reward the couple with abundance. The biblical story of Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit, said to be an apple but possibly a pomegranate, is portrayed as the first human sin and the reason for man's state of sin. The story of Eve's giving in to the tempting fruit also starts off John Milton's epic on the fall of mankind, Paradise Lost. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, food is an important element in maintaining the balance of bodily humors, and gluttony is addressed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony is severely punished in Dante's hell. And food taboos are part of the human struggle: In Byron's Don Juan, a starving crew of seamen resort to cannibalism, but only after a long and horrible effort to avoid it.
Food in poetry can have transformative, and sometimes destructive, powers. In the English epic Beowulf, feasting (which always involves plenty of drinking) is generally followed by sleep, which makes the men vulnerable to attacks by the monster Grendel, who feasts on men. (Feasts in Beowulf are also given to honor people, and are the backdrop against which many discussions and confrontations take place.) In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," the consumption of milk and honey is linked to an altered state of mind. John Keats paid close attention to food in his poems and letters; in his poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," the beautiful woman destroys a knight by feeding and seducing him. The food, like the sexual attraction, is central to his undoing.
Some poets invoke food to convey matters of the spirit. T. S. Eliot's question "Do I dare to eat a peach?" conveys the jaded frame of mind of the speaker of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Emily Dickinson uses hunger metaphorically; in the poem "Hunger," hunger and dining express loneliness and love. Another poem, "Forbidden Fruit," makes a pithy statement about human nature: "Forbidden fruit a flavor has / That lawful orchards mocks; How luscious lies the pea within / The pod that Duty locks!"
Some poets simply delight in the discussing of food. Pablo Neruda, in his Elemental Odes, writes about artichokes, lemons, and olive oil (and the use of the oil in mayonnaise and salad dressing). Ogden Nash has a book of light verse about food. D. H. Lawrence wrote poems entitled "Pomegranate," "Peach," "Medlars and Sorb-Apples," "Figs," and "Grapes." A. E. Housman celebrates the cherry tree in "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now." William Carlos Williams's famous "This Is Just to Say" has immortalized some irresistible plums in an icebox; the savoring of plums occurs also in his "To a Poor Old Woman." The contemporary American poet Robert Hass weaves lush California cuisine into many poems.
Poetry and food may be coming back together, as they were in ancient times. Enough contemporary poets have written poems about food to fill a number of anthologies of food poems, including one devoted exclusively to poems about potatoes (Spud Songs, ed. Gloria Vando and Robert Stewart).
See also Bible, Food in the; Folklore, Food in; Myth and Legend, Food in.
Asala, Joanne. Celtic Folklore Cooking. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Press, 1998.
Chang, K. C. Food in Chinese Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Dalby, Andrew. Empire of Pleasures. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Furst, Lilian R., and Peter W. Graham, eds. Disorderly Eaters: Texts in Self-Empowerment. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
Gowers, Emily. The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Mahon, Brid. Land of Milk and Honey. Boulder, Colo.: Mercier Press, 1998.
Neruda, Pablo. Selected Poems. Translated by Ben Belitt. New York: Grove Press, 1961.
Root, Waverley. Food. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. Reprint: New York: Smithmark, 1996.
Silverman, Jeff. The First Chapbook for Foodies. Emeryville, Calif.: Woodford Press, 2000.
Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. Great Britain: Penguin, 1973. Reprint: New York: Crown, 1988.
Visser, Margaret. Much Depends on Dinner. New York: Collier, 1986.
Waley, Arthur. The Book of Songs. New York: Grove Press, 1987.
Poetry (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
The Armenian genocide and the Holocaust produced some important and critically acclaimed poets. These poets bore witness to genocide and wrote about exile, grief, and moral outrage.
Poetry of the Armenian Genocide
Siamanto (Adom Yarjanian) was born in 1878 in Akn, Ottoman Empire (present-day Kemaliye, Turkey). He wrote a cycle of poems in Bloody News from My Friend (1909) that depict the atrocities of the 1909 massacre of the Armenians when converging Turkish political coalitions and local Turkish citizens killed about thirty thousand Armenians living in Adana province; this was a prologue to the Armenian Genocide of 1915. "The Dance," "Grief," "The Mulberry Tree," and "The Dagger" are graphic, realistic depictions of massacre, torture, and rape. Scholars consider Siamanto a ground-breaking poet because he preceded the British trench poets of World War I and refused to be ornamental, generic, or metaphysical in his writings. During the Armenian genocide, he was one of the 250 intellectuals and cultural leaders arrested in Constantinople on April 24, 1915, and later executed by the Ottoman government.
Along with Siamanto, Daniel Varoujan (1884915), was a leading voice of the new generation of western Armenian writers (Armenians of the Ottoman Empire). His early poems embody the recovery of Armenian myths, legends, and folklore that characterized the cultural revival of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. He was arrested by the Ottoman government on April 24, 1915, and later tortured and murdered on August 19. While he was in prison he wrote poems about Armenian agrarian life and a longing for the land. His poem "The Red Soil" depicts the culture of massacre Armenians were subjected to from the time of Sultan Abdul Hamid's massacres of the Armenians in the 1890s through the eve of the Armenian genocide.
Eghishe Charents (1897937) was born in Kars, then Russian Armenia (in present-day Turkey). His epiclike poem "Dantesque Legend" deals with his experience of the Armenian genocide during his participation in a resistance movement that took him into northeastern Turkey in order to rescue Armenians. Many other Charents poems deal with the trauma of the genocide.
Vahan Tekeyan (1878948), born in Constantinople, was in Cairo, Egypt, when the genocide commenced, and so escaped execution. His selected poems, Sacred Wrath (1983), include a number of finely controlled and often elliptically transformed poems of loss, exile, and grief: "On a Sonata by Beethoven" is a meditation on music and exile. "We Shall Say to God," " We Shall Forget," "There Are Boys," "To God," and "Scutari" are highly acclaimed poems about trauma and the meaning of suffering in the wake of genocide.
Poetry of the Holocaust
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish poets produced a range of important poems that bore direct witness to atrocity, to the aftermath of trauma, and to the metaphysical meaning of suffering. Nelly Sachs (1891970) was born into a wealthy family in Berlin. When the Nazis came to power, she barely escaped arrest, and fled to Sweden, where she lived for the rest of her life, writing and translating Swedish poetry. Her career as a poet flowered when she was in her fifties. In the House of Death (1947) deals with the suffering of the Jews and the overarching suffering of humanity. Eclipse of Stars (1949), And No One Knows Where to Go (1957), and Metamorphosis (1959) explore suffering, persecution, and exile. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1966.
Miklos Radnoti (1909944), a Hungarian Jew, was an avant-garde poet and editor before being deported and sent to labor camps in Yugoslavia. On a forced march back to Hungary with some three thousand men, he was shot. When his body was exhumed from a mass grave in 1946, his widow found a notebook full of poems in his pockets that included some of the most powerful poems written about the Holocaust: "Forced March," "Letter to My Wife," "Peace, Horror," "Picture Postcards," and "Seventh Ecologue."
Primo Levi (1919987) was born in Turin, Italy, and fought with the partisans in Italy until he was captured in 1944 and sent to the Bunz-Monowitz concentration camp. His professional training as a chemist helped him survive until the Russians liberated his camp in 1945. Although he is most well known for his works Survival in Auschwitz (1947) and The Drowned and the Saved (1986), Levi was also a poet. His poems bear an austerity and plain style that addresses the concentration camp experience with a unique rhetorical power that does not betray poetic texture. Levi's Collected Poems (1984) include "Shema," "For Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem," "Buna," and "Annunciation," among others. Levi, never able to overcome the psychological burden of his experiences, committed suicide in 1987.
Paul Celan (1920970) was born Paul Antschel in Bukovina, a German enclave of Romania, which was occupied by Romanian Fascists and Nazis in the early 1940s. His parents died in a concentration camp, but Celanho was sent into forced laborscaped to Paris in 1944 where he settled and continued to write poetry in German. His poems are written with an inventive dissonance that bears his tortured relationship to the perpetrator's language, thus defining him as a major and experimental poet. "Death Fugue," a poem that deals with concentration camp life, may be the most famous poem of the Holocaust. He committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine in 1970. Selections from his nine books of poems appear in Poems of Paul Celan (1970). Other important poets of the Holocaust include Tadeusz Borowski (1922951), Dan Pagis (1930986), Abraham Sutzkever (1913, and Gertrud Kolmar (1894943).
SEE ALSO Fiction
Der Hovanessian, Diana, and Marzbed Margossian, eds. and trans. (1978). Anthology of Armenian Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press.
Der Hovanessian, Diana, and Marzbed Margossian, eds. and trans. (1986). Land of Fire: Selected Poems of Eghishe Charents. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis.
Forché, Carolyn, ed. (1993). Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. New York: W.W. Norton.