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A Readable Feast: Poems To Feed 'The Hungry Ear'

<em>Still Life with Fruit and Nuts,</em> by Robert Seldon Duncanson
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, by Robert Seldon Duncanson

This Thanksgiving, as hearty aromas fill the house, take a moment to savor a different kind of nourishment — poetry about food.

The Hungry Ear, a new collection, celebrates the pleasures and the sorrows of food with poems from Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath and dozens more. Poet Kevin Young cooked up — or edited — this readable feast. He tells NPR's Renee Montagne that, much like the best meals, the best poems are made from scratch.

"I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain," he says. "And that's where food comes from, and so there's this common link."

Many of the poems included in the collection focus on a particular food. Take, for example, Elizabeth Alexander's mouthwatering "Butter":

Then there's William Carlos Williams' famous ode to plums, "This Is Just To Say," which reads like a note posted on a refrigerator:

According to Young, Williams' poem "is asking us to pay a little bit of attention to the language of food, the language of relationships — the kind of coldness, but also this precious sweetness."

"Bacon & Eggs," Howard Nemerov's snack of a poem, flies by but leaves a lasting impression:

Finally, Irish poet Seamus Heaney's "Oysters" mulls over the experience of eating the shellfish:

Poet Kevin Young is a curator at Emory University's Raymond Danowski Poetry Library.
Doriane Raiman / NPR
/
NPR
Poet Kevin Young is a curator at Emory University's Raymond Danowski Poetry Library.

These verses show the poets' deep, personal love of food, an affection Young explores in his introduction.

"One of the things I think [poets] enjoy about a great meal is that it goes away," Young says, "that you make a terrific meal for friends and family, and if you succeed, it's gone. And there's this pleasure in that because it's exactly the opposite of writing a poem or writing anything. You are struggling and struggling, and finishing means it's permanent, or at least feels that way."

But the act of gathering for a meal also has long-lasting effects. In "Perhaps the World Ends Here," Joy Harjo delves into what really happens around the kitchen table:

According to Young, "There's ... this desire in [poetry] to understand the common table, the place where we all share and are all equal before. And I think that is very much central to both the book [and] this thinking about food and its meaning and its pleasures."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicole Cohen
Nicole Cohen is an education editor at NPR. She edits news stories, features and investigations for broadcast, NPR.org and other platforms. Cohen also leads NPR's education member station collaborative, which brings local journalism from across the country to NPR audiences.