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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

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Galway Kinnell's poem "Blackberry Eating" plays with the idea of blackberries and words. He explores the fruit's sensory appeal with vivid, onomatopoeic descriptions within a narrative. He does this with an economy of words and makes use of repetition ("black") to emphasize the visual, inky aspect of the juicy blackberry.

The poem begins with the persona 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 them for breakfast. He does not gather all of them to take home; he eats them straight, picking them meticulously and "lifting the stalks to [his] mouth." The act of going through them despite the presence of bristles only demonstrates how strong and deep his sensory enjoyment is. The prickly stalks exist to be felt just as much as the pleasure, and he treats them as small pains.

After reveling in the blackberries, he then reveals that he does the same with words. This serves as the turning point of the poem where a direct comparison is made. 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 from the act of eating to the act of mindfully enunciating words in 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 in their utterance. He then proceeds to play with words as if they were berries, savoring their musicality and meaning: strengths, squinched, squeeze, splurge, silent, startled, icy, etc—all making use of alliteration to mimic the ripe succulence of blackberries within the inner context of bursting in one's mouth and in the wider context of the cold of late September. The blackberries are the physical embodiment of his appetite for words—the way they exist to be heedfully plucked and then savored in poetry, the "penalty" in acquiring them notwithstanding.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

“Blackberry Eating” is a short poem in free verse, its fourteen lines (in one stanza) all parts of one compound-complex sentence. One-sentence poems are not uncommon for Galway Kinnell. The title plunges into the immediacy of the context of the poem by focusing on an action as subject. The poem is written in the first person. There is no indication that the speaker’s persona is someone other than the poet, so the poem fits into the classic tradition of lyric poetry wherein the poet directly informs the reader about a personal experience.

A subject that is clearly in the realm of the ordinary is the starting point of “Blackberry Eating.” Kinnell introduces the activity of picking blackberries by grounding the experience in a particular mood, love, and a particular season, autumn. Autumn suggests the time of harvest, when the prospect of impending death weighs heavily on the mind. No drape of melancholy is allowed here, though; the enthusiasm of love keeps it pushed aside.

A descriptive series of words, a vibrant picture of blackberries begging to be picked, helps the reader see, smell, and feel the clusters of fruit. A blending of wilderness and civilization follows when the speaker links his exploration of nature with humankind’s regularity and demands: The blackberries are for breakfast.

When Kinnell draws attention to the prickly stalks, he focuses on the significance of small details and comments on the mystical process of creation. He suggests that the stalks earn their prickles as a penalty for “knowing the black art of blackberry-making,” a parallel with the myth of Adam and Eve’s loss of Eden for “knowing” too much. The “knowing” here has mysterious and sexual connotations, as well as moral ones, since what is referred to as a “black art” is the knowledge of reproduction, which requires a penalty that serves as a flag of warning or an obstacle to be overcome for the speaker. Standing among the prickly stalks, the speaker raises clusters of blackberries to his face. The berries are framed in a close-up now, so ready to enter his mouth that they almost drop in, but the inclusion of “almost” qualifies the relationship of berry and tongue so that the necessity for deliberate involvement on the part of the eater remains.

The poem shifts away from the actual wilderness setting when blackberries are compared to a certain class of “words” in the latter portion of the long sentence. Kinnell limits these words to those with many letters and one syllable, and then, keeping blackberries within sight, he calls the words “lumps.” The poet suggests “strengths” and “squinched” as examples of words that invoke a sensory experience like that of the provocative berries when such words, like the berries, engage the tongue. The interaction between the words and the poet, described in a series of actions of increasing intensity, emphasizes the sensory experience. In the last two lines, Kinnell returns the reader to a vantage point distant enough to glimpse the relationship between his satisfaction in encountering nature’s empowering impetus in the creative wild and his satisfaction in realizing the same empowering impetus in his own creative impulse. The familiar blackberry-eating terminology in the description is not what it seems, however, since it now describes an inner place in which the black art of language making resides.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

Its fourteen-line length demonstrates that “Blackberry Eating” is an unrhymed, free-verse sonnet in the style of Robert Lowell. The strict sonnet forms specify definite patterns of meter and rhyme but can also be interpreted on the basis of spirit and passion. The poem’s first eight lines, or octave, consistent with the Italian sonnet form, serve as an introduction of the theme, developing the theme in the direction of the sensory experience of blackberry eating. Also true to form, the poem’s last six lines, or sestet, introduce a new development or application of the proposition, wherein words are substituted for berries as sensory objects. This flow and ebb are sonnetlike, even though none of the other aspects demanded by the sonnet form is present.

The controlling image of the poem is a simile: the comparison of blackberries and words. Each element of the simile, however, has a specific definition. The blackberries are “fat, overripe, icy,” and the words are “many-lettered and one-syllabled.” In the first instance, Kinnell uses a series of somewhat hyperbolic adjectives to enhance the reader’s appreciation of the sensate function of the blackberries. The “words” of the simile, restricted by Kinnell’s imposition of rules, are heightened in meaning as well, since they directly relate to “strengths” and “squinched” by being the kind of words that sound “strong” because they “squinch” their few vowels among an abundance of consonants.

Kinnell’s simile is framed by an analogy between the mysterious “art of blackberry-making” and the mysterious power of words. By use of a mirroring syntax including the repetition of the phrase “in late September” in the first and last lines of the poem, and the repetition of the adjectives “icy, black” in the second and next-to-last lines at the end of a series of adjectives modifying blackberries and language, respectively, the poem conveys the message that, in the same way that the blackberry bush produces blackberries, language produces succulent words that, when boldly embraced by the tongue, introduce sensations akin to the pleasure derived from devouring luscious blackberries.

The very sounds of “Blackberry Eating” underline its sense-oriented theme. The alliteration of b’s and long e’s, and the repetition of p in the first four lines, together with the s’s sprinkled generously throughout, work the lips and tongue. Especially involving are the l’s and s’s of line 9 followed by “squeeze, squinchsplurge” and then “silent, startled, icy”—words that infuse both energy and surprise into the images they evoke.