Succulent poetry in the best possible taste

An encounter with delicious language can leave you ‘lusting for French fries’

 

At a recent poetry reading I had the curious experience of being overwhelmed by a ferocious hunger. I was listening to Peter Sirr read his terrific poem Madly Singing in the City, in which the chip-shop institution Leo Burdock plays a starring role. As Sirr read his lines about chips leaping in the tray and the “hot package . . . unswaddled, salted, drenched, wrapped again”, events overtook me, and before long I found myself propelled in the door of Burdock’s, demanding my very own hot package.

Another fine poet, Margaret Atwood, also finds inspiration in the humble chip; her poem February finds her thinking “dire thoughts” and “lusting for French fries with a splash of vinegar”.

The rich taste of words in our mouth can often resemble, maybe even rival, the taste of food. Just think of Seamus Heaney’s brilliant lines “Anahorish, soft gradient of consonant, vowel-meadow” and feel the sensuous splendour as the syllables come alive in your mouth.

The culinary realm itself has provided rich inspiration for the poetic imagination. In a typically entertaining essay in The Outnumbered Poet, Dennis O’Driscoll refers to a great menu of fine food poems, such as Pablo Neruda’s The Great Tablecloth, Galway Kinnell’s ‘high-fibre’ poem Oatmeal and Douglas Dunn’s Ratatouille.

Tom McCarthy’s sequence The Last Geraldine Officer houses a selection of intrinsically Waterford recipes, including “Cappoquin House Liver cooked in cream with herbs and croutons” and “Mrs Norah Foley’s carrageen moss jelly”.

Set in the same province, the fine young English poet Emily Berry’s poem Other People’s Stories invokes the Castlemahon chicken plant. The aptly named Berry plies a fine line in food poems, displaying a wonderful empathy for the tomato in her collection Dear Boy.

Some like it hot

In a charming elegy for Mark Strand, Simic describes how the two poets came up with a new movement called gastronomic poetry. They’d both noticed that radiant smiles would break out on the faces of poetry listeners whenever food was mentioned in a poem, so they decided that “mouthwatering dishes” would henceforth play a part in all their work. In a country where people were more drawn to eating than to poetry, this was a striking act of audience development.

Strand and Simic talked about how in poetry, as in cooking, it’s all a matter of subtle touches that come from long experience or are the result of sudden inspiration.

Poems, like recipes, sometimes just need an additional thing or two to bring them fully to life. He concluded that he and Strand were really “just a couple of short-order cooks who kept trying to pass themselves off as poets”.

Maureen Kennelly is director of Poetry Ireland

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