Blackberry Eating

by Galway Kinnell

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Galway Kinnell’s poem “Blackberry Eating,” first published in the 1980 collection Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, plays with the comparison of blackberries to words. Kinnell explores the blackberries’ sensory appeal with vivid, onomatopoeic descriptions within a narrative about picking and eating blackberries on a late September morning. He does this with an economy of words and makes use of repetition (such as of the word “black”) to emphasize the visual and sensual aspects of the dark, juicy blackberries.

The poem begins with the speaker—likely Kinnell himself—stepping out and into his experience of being in the midst of these blackberries. This is a palpable experience made even more so by the specific manner in which he eats the berries for breakfast: he does not gather all of them to take home but eats them straight from the vine, “lifting the stalks to [his] mouth” and letting the blackberries fall onto his tongue “almost unbidden.” The act of picking and eating the berries despite the presence of thorns only demonstrates how strong and deep the speaker’s sensory enjoyment is. The “prickly” stalks exist to be felt just as much as the berries do, and the speaker treats them as small pains—a “penalty” which the bushes must pay for their “black art” of producing berries and which the speaker is willing to accept. The phrase “black art” evokes a sense of the occult, linking the blackberry bushes’ natural reproductive cycle with a hint of the secret and forbidden. And indeed, there is something joyfully transgressive and sensual about the speaker’s act of devouring the blackberries where they grow, rather than taking them home to eat in a tamer, more civilized manner.

After reveling in the blackberries, the speaker then reveals that he does the same with words. This serves as the turning point of the poem, where a direct comparison is made between words and berries. At the point where “the ripest berries / fall almost unbidden to [his] tongue,” it is the very image of the tongue that allows the poem to shift its focus from the act of eating to the act of mindfully enunciating words with one’s mouth.

Immediately, a connection is made between the way berries move in the mouth and the way words are felt, heard, and experienced fully as one utters them. The speaker then proceeds to enjoy words as if they were berries, savoring their musicality and meaning: “strengths,” “squinched,” “squeeze,” “splurge,” “silent,” “startled,” and so on—all making use of alliteration to mimic the ripe succulence of blackberries bursting in one’s mouth in the chill of late September. The blackberries are the physical embodiment of the speaker’s appetite for words and the way they exist to be plucked and then savored in poetry, the thorny danger in acquiring them notwithstanding. Thus the consumption of blackberries is linked to the consumption of words, and the “black art / of blackberry-making” is linked to the poet’s art of poem-making. Although it is implied that this latter art, too, carries a “penalty,” Kinnell leaves it up to the reader’s imagination what exactly that penalty might be.

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