Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1202
Lines: 1-3 From the outset of "Eating Poetry," the scene is peculiar, and it builds toward an even stranger, extraordinary climax at the end. The first line has us picture a man with ink running from his mouth. Notice that the verb Strand chose is not "drips" or "drizzles" or...
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From the outset of "Eating Poetry," the scene is peculiar, and it builds toward an even stranger, extraordinary climax at the end. The first line has us picture a man with ink running from his mouth. Notice that the verb Strand chose is not "drips" or "drizzles" or "seeps," but runs. It gives the impression of someone eating very hungrily, "shoveling it in," so to speak. We do not have to wait long to find out if this gluttonous act is painful for the speaker, for in line 2, he tells us, "There is no happiness like mine." Now we know that the ink running from his mouth is comparable to the juice of a thick steak on a beef lover's lips or a refreshing sports drink pouring down the chin of a happy athlete. But what causes such glee for the speaker here is not food or drink. Rather, his reason is: "I have been eating poetry." This line—as all the others—is very simply put, as though a common statement of fact. The fact here, though, is anything but common, and as we move through the next lines, the speaker acknowledges such.
Line 4 introduces a second character in the poem, and she appears quite a bit more normal than the narrator. In learning that "The librarian does not believe what she sees," we are drawn back into a fairly realistic world—one in which we may have the same reaction and share the feeling of the person who has just witnessed something bizarre. Lines 5 and 6 depict the librarian's initial response to her unusual patron, portraying her as "sad." Her eyes apparently show sympathy, and by walking "with her hands in her dress," she demonstrates a helplessness to do anything about the situation. Resigning herself to pace with hidden hands also indicates cautious behavior and a desire to protect herself. While there is nothing strange about the librarian's responses at this point, she is still a part of an abnormal scene, and her own behavior will take a turn for the odd side as she becomes more and more caught up in the weird actions of the man who is eating poetry.
The third stanza sends us back into the surreal world of the speaker. In this scene, he has finished devouring whatever pile of books he had in front of him, and states very simply, "The poems are gone." Just as simply, he tells us, "The light is dim," and it may be because the library is closing and someone is turning off the lights or it may refer to evening coming on with its loss of sunlight. Whichever "literal" meaning this line refers to, it also lends figuratively a gloomy, darkening aura to an already eerie setting. In line 9, Strand demonstrates his tendency to introduce further oddities into a poem by suddenly shifting to completely different characters (in this case, dogs) whose presence is incongruous to everything mentioned so far. "The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up" is a puzzling statement that only evokes questions: What dogs? How does the speaker know the library has a basement? Why are there dogs in it? Why are they coming up? There are no answers offered to these questions, but the animals do become a part of the build-up toward the poem's bizarre ending and a metaphorical link to the speaker himself.
The fourth stanza provides a description of the dogs much in the same way that the second did for the librarian. The dogs, however, are more difficult to grasp for the language is more unlikely, the scene more horrific. "Their eyeballs roll," indicates a sign of madness and portrays a wild or hysterical lack of control. While wild-eyed animals may not be all that far-fetched, line 11 ("their blond legs burn like brush") is unrealistic. But it does serve the purpose of heightened horror and unbelievable occurrence that fuel this poem with a macabre, comedic effect. The poem returns to the librarian in line 12, and she, too, is becoming more hysterical and behaving irrationally in light of the situation. While mad dogs run up the stairs with their legs on fire, the "poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep." This response makes the woman seem both childlike and foolish, considering that any "normal" person would most likely be running for the door instead of standing there stamping her feet. The scene, however, is somewhat funny and most certainly surreal, and this is the effect for which Strand is most noted.
Line 13 is an obvious example of understatement. Of course the librarian "does not understand," and the speaker admits it. We have the impression, however, that he does not consider her feeling obvious nor that it should go without saying. The simplicity of the sentence underscores his own naivete, and the next line takes us even further into the strange mind of the man who eats poetry. It also renders a startling connection between the dogs and the man. Suddenly, he has become one, or, at least, begun to act like one. The man-dog in line 14 does not appear as ferocious as the animals that were charging up the basement stairs, but, metaphorically, the link between the images works. The man who is now on his knees is docile at this point and merely licks the librarian's hand. Finally, the woman returns to a more likely reaction: "she screams."
The imagery in the final stanza is both ironic and contradictory. We learned in line 14 that the speaker had taken on the characteristics of a dog, but in line 16 he tells us "I am a new man." He immediately follows this statement with more canine allusions: "I snarl at her and bark." Bouncing back and forth between images that are incongruous and offering no ultimate explanation for the confusion is a technique that draws readers to this poet's work instead of driving them away. Strand piques curiosity and teases the intellect in such a way that we are prepared for such odd and delightful lines as the one that ends "Eating Poetry": "I romp with joy in the bookish dark." This line sustains the man-dog metaphor (dogs and people may both romp with joy) and presents yet another paradoxical scene. The word "bookish" carries a dull, stuffy tone, most often connoting a studious, formal person or place. And in this case, it is "dark" as well. But this rather somber image is butted up against a reference to raucous, carefree play, as the speaker who has been eating poetry finally gives in to the overwhelming pleasure of doing so. We do not know what happens to the librarian nor whether the dogs in the basement are real, and by the end of the poem it doesn't matter much. The man who seems deranged at first has taken the reader from a bizarre beginning through a frightening episode and finally to a gleeful end in which we can celebrate his love of poetry along with him. We are not expected to analyze nor apply logic to the work. It is meant to entice, provoke, puzzle, and delight.