The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Eating Poetry” is a short poem in free verse, its eighteen lines divided into six stanzas. The title suggests either comedy or surrealism, and the poem contains elements of both. Mark Strand uses the first person to create a persona whose voice is Strand’s but whose experience is imaginary; indeed, the fact that the poem is a work of imagination is the main point.

The story of “Eating Poetry” is simple enough. The speaker is in a library, where he is eating, not reading, poetry. After he has eaten “The poems,” the speaker is confronted by a librarian, and dogs start on their way up from the basement; the speaker himself begins to behave like a dog. Eating the poetry seems to have changed the speaker.

The first sentence of the poem’s opening stanza carries the reader into a strange world. Not only is eating poetry an unlikely (even surreal) activity, but Strand’s description of the immediate physical result is also extraordinary. The ink in books of poetry is not usually runny, but if one can eat poetry, strange things may happen. “Eating Poetry” begins with an image confirming the title: “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.” The image plays on the familiar metaphor “a voracious reader,” which suggests a hungry consumer of books. Strand takes the idea of consuming poetry literally. Instead of simply reading poetry voraciously, the speaker is actually eating it—and enjoying it.

The speaker’s...

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Strand wrote "Eating Poetry" sometime during the mid- to late-1960s and published it in his 1968 collection Reasons for Moving. The...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Eating Poetry” is based on such simple statements and such straightforward language that its mysteriousness is hard to pin down, but it is precisely these simple statements in ordinary language that create the surrealistic atmosphere of the poem. Taken together with the title, the first sentence describes an implausible cause and effect. After that sentence, nothing in the poem is impossible. Each sentence in isolation makes perfect sense and describes a strange, but hardly impossible, situation. The strangeness of the poem, which rests in neither sentence structure nor diction, is the strangeness of imagination.

The free verse of “Eating Poetry” uses the rhythm of subject-verb-object sentence structure. “Eating Poetry” has no adverbs, few adjectives, and only the simplest verbs. Forms of “to be” are the most commonly used verbs in the poem. The lines are of unequal length, and the poem is not particularly musical in its sound effects.

Surrealism can be explained as a style of art—whether painting, literature, or music—in which things happen that defy the laws of physics. Ink dribbling from the mouth of someone who has eaten poems is a surrealistic image. Surrealist works often have much in common with dreams; in dreams, time and space operate by a different logic than that of one’s waking hours. Indeed, perhaps it is best not to categorize Strand’s poem as surrealism, but to think of it as a kind of a dream.


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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

On the page, "Eating Poetry" appears very structured and uniform. It consists of six stanzas, each containing three lines. One line in each...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1961: American psychologist B. F. Skinner published his highly acclaimed book Walden Two. In it, Skinner advanced the theory of...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Explain your opinion on whether a poem with surrealistic imagery is more interesting or less interesting to read than a one with conventional...

(The entire section is 118 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

In 1978, Mark Strand recorded a 60-minute cassette containing the poems "From the Long Sad Party" and "Shooting Whales." He is introduced by...

(The entire section is 59 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Surrealist "Women: An International Anthology is a wide-ranging and delightful collection of essays compiled by editor Penelope...

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Amazon Books,, accessed December 28, 1999.

Bly, Robert, "A Wrong Turning in American...

(The entire section is 343 words.)