Last Updated September 5, 2023.
“Blackberry Eating,” written by award-winning American poet Galway Kinnell, was published in 1980 as part of the collection Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (Mariner Books, 1980). Kinnell was born in 1927 in Rhode Island and spent much of his life in Vermont. He was poet laureate for the state of Vermont for several of his years in residence there. Himself an alumnus of Princeton University, Kinnell taught creative writing at New York University. He died in 2014.
The poem is fourteen lines long; however, it is not a sonnet, as one would expect of a poem of this length. The poet begins with a first-person speaker (“I”) who is picking blackberries in late September. The first two lines not only establish the idyllic, pastoral setting, they also subvert the reader’s expectations when he describes a blackberry itself as black. Somewhat unusual is that the speaker is not simply blackberry picking, but “blackberry eating”—not bringing the blackberries home with him, but enjoying them straight from the vine for “breakfast,” as he states in line 3.
The poet also makes use of assonance (repetition of vowel sounds, as in “fat” and “black,” and “overripe” and “icy”) and alliteration (repetition of the same letter at the beginning of consecutive words, as in “love” and “late,” and “blackberries” and “breakfast”). The speaker next notices the thorns on the blackberry bush, which he terms a “penalty for knowing the black art of blackberry-making.” He describes how the ripe blackberries fall “unbidden” into his mouth when he holds the branch in the air.
Here, about halfway through the poem, comes the major comparison: blackberries to words. The speaker compares blackberries to words specifically for how they fall onto his tongue. The sample words he gives for the purpose of comparison are “strengths” and “squinched” (an unusual word and so an interesting choice on the part of the poet). The speaker justifies this comparison by insisting that the words are “many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps.” This comparison at once returns the visual of the blackberry and also implies that words have physical substance. Like the blackberries themselves, the “language” of this time of year is described as “icy” and “black.” The repetition of the “late September” temporal designation imports to the poem a sort of ring composition.
Kinnell acknowledges Walt Whitman as one of his major influences, which is clear from the sensuous natural imagery in “Blackberry Eating.” Kinnell, too, is especially concerned with the versatility of words and the power of language in general. The poem is somewhat self-referential, insofar as it reflects on the power of writing itself. The poem takes great pleasure in manipulating words, such as by “squeezing[ing],” “squelch[ing],” and “splurg[ing].” Here, too, the poet also forces the word “splurge” to act in a transitive fashion.