The first Thanksgiving I spent away from family started out well enough. I went to friends' house south of San Francisco, saved from solitude by their kindness. Though not my mama's cooking, the food was good. But the meal was most memorable because as soon as the first of us laid down a fork--in what my family would have called simply a pause before getting seconds--the plates were whisked away, leftovers wrapped up, dessert barely offered. I was left hungry for more than just food--each Thanksgiving I could remember it had actually been the talk that mattered most. Between bites we would talk and cut up and talk some more about everything from politics to music to the past to the food itself. And if you got around to having thirds, well, you had the meal's length to thank.
What I missed that day 20 years ago might best be called lingering--something we do after and during a good meal and with a good poem. Both of them stay with you. The same way food sates more than just appetite, poetry offers up sustenance for not simply words, but what lies behind them. It was at my family's table that I learned how to be a poet, realizing that poetry is the kind of talk that sticks to your ribs.
While I've had plenty of good food alone, a truly great meal requires other people. Conversation, connection, and some good spirits (in all senses) contribute to making a meal memorable. In the same way, a poem doesn't really live until someone else breathes life into it, reading it silently or more often aloud. Like food, poems belong to the body. Poems are meant for the mouth, though they involve all the other senses as well; the look of the poems, their very taste and tone, are a crucial part of their pleasure. "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem," William Carlos Williams said, though the good doctor knew that pleasure sometimes takes many forms, from brief to brainy.
Still, food and poems differ in ways, too. Unlike food, poems are meant to be permanent. As I say in the introduction to my new anthology, The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink, the better food is the faster it disappears. This holds a certain amount of pleasure for poets, who in my experience are quite enthusiastic about good food--especially when it's free--and have even been known to enjoy a drink. Or three. This I think is because poetry is necessarily a lonely art, one done at our desks in relative quiet, with music or children's voices circling around.
"Poetry is like bread," Pablo Neruda said, and went on to prove it with his "Elemental Odes" to primal things like salt--and laziness. I know a couple who fell in love over his "Ode to Onions"; I am trying not make too much of the fact that they are also now farmers. "I begin with the proposition that eating is an agricultural act," writes farmer-poet Wendell Berry. Food, folks are starting to remember again, is an active process, not a passive one. We know that the art of poetry, like Thanksgiving dinner, takes time. That doesn't mean you can't sometimes want something short and bittersweet, like this poem by Howard Nemerov, "Bacon and Eggs," quoted in its entirety:
The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.
Not every poem asks us to give our all. Not every food is for you. That's why they are at least 31 flavors. But every part of us is spoken to by poetry in ways little else can.
In putting together an anthology of poetry that celebrates the everyday and celebratory quality of food, I was struck by the way many of the best poems were filled with thanks. The ode appears as a favorite form, offering a way to praise the everyday yet complicate that love with hard truths. This may be because both food and poetry have lately been taken too much for granted, poetry exiled to the kids' table. But our food, like our poetry, is a reflection of us, filled with considerations of justice, politics, and those less fortunate; and sometimes of those fortunate enough to find the perfect apple. Or the perfect apple pie.
Take this poem by the late Jack Gilbert, called "Hunger":
Digging into the apple
with my thumbs.
Scraping out the closed nails
and digging deeper.
Refusing the moon color.
Getting to the wooden part.
Getting to the seeds.
Not taking anyone's word for it.
Getting beyond the seeds.
The end of this poem isn't about eating anymore, but writing and inevitably, living. Food gives us life, but poetry helps shape its meaning.
And if you sit at poetry's welcome table long enough, you might find something you like.
So as we celebrate one of the few meals we reliably cook at home, after giving thanks or in between courses or before the ballgame, why not try a poem? It can feed you, too, remind you as Lucille Clifton does in "cutting greens," of "the bond of live things everywhere."