Exploring Ideas In Poetry

1003 words | 4 page(s)

Both Louis Simpson’s “American Poetry” (1963) and Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry” (1968) are poems that discuss the subject of poetry itself. In Simpson’s poem, a poem is described as needing to have a strong stomach, as it must be capable of absorbing details such as “rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems” (Strand, 1963, line 3). In other words, a poem must be able to withstand numerous details. The second half of the short poem describes how poems must be able to endure swimming for miles through a desert, which is in itself an impossible act. Because the speaker is describing what qualifies as American poetry, he is intentionally providing disparate details and acts that would be impossible for a human. The central premise of the poem therefore seems to indicate that there is no definitive form of American poetry, but in order for it to qualify as American poetry, it must be able to do things that no one else can.

Mark Strand’s poem, “Eating Poetry” (1968), provides a narrative in that the speaker describes himself as literally eating poetry until the librarian becomes horrified. The speaker compares himself to a dog; at first, the act of eating poetry brings bliss, as the speaker states, “There is no happiness like mine” (line 2). Once all the poetry in the library has been consumed, he claims, “I am a new man” (line 16) and the “I romp with joy in the bookish dark.” The speaker has become nourished by the amount of poetry he has eaten. Thus, both the Simpson and Strand poems associate poetry with the act of eating, or consumption: in the Simpson poem, the poem is the object doing the consuming, and it eats all sorts of materials such as rubber and coal; while in the Strand poem, the speaker is the one in the act of consumption, as he eats poetry from pages themselves.

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The historical context of both poems, being written in the 1960s, is that this was an era in which civil rights reforms and conflicts such as Vietnam dominated the news. During this time, there was an attempt to redefine Americanism in multiple disciplines. People began to question the traditional values associated with American culture of the 1950s; for instance, the fight for Civil Rights began to introduce in the public consciousness that depictions of the ideal nuclear American family of the 1950s, including traditional gender roles, was not necessarily an inclusive or even accurate representation of people in the United States. Additionally, American involvement in Vietnam began to cause many to question the ethical or moral motivation behind this conflict. Whereas the fight in World War 2, and many previous conflicts, were seen as moral and just causes, Vietnam caused many to question the role of the government’s support in war. This caused many to redefine the role of various definitions that had previously been accepted. For Simpson and Strand, this era resulted in drafting poems that sought to redefine how poetry in general, and American poetry in particular, should be understood.

In order to achieve their meaning, each poem assumes poetry is a physical, tangible being or object. In Simpson’s poem, personification of poetry is used, as it is described as being able to eat. In Strand’s poem, poetry is described as being a metaphor for food, which is then consumed. Beyond these metaphors, each poem focuses on the act of eating, or consuming; in the first poem, the poem is the doing the eating, while in the second poem, the poem is being eaten. The reason the act of eating is effective is because it implies that we are what we eat. Because American poetry is described as being able to eat various materials, such as the moon and uranium, the implication is that American poetry is able to become all these details and descriptions because it is able to handle them. In the Strand poem, where the speaker is the one eating poetry, the point he is making is that poetry provides him with nourishment. Because he is eating poetry, he is able to become a poet, even though the very act appears to horrify the librarian.

The differences between the two poems, in regard to the main subject of eating, is the difference in who or what is doing the act of consuming. The speaker in Simpson’s poem is more observational, and the speaker appears to be describing poetry rather than visualizing it firsthand. He begins with defining poetry as “Whatever it is” (line 1), which gives the implication that there are numerous ways poetry can appear. There is no strict form or defining characteristic of American poetry, other than its ability to consume various and disparate details. It also must be able to do the impossible, such as swim through a desert, which implies that American poetry must be able to do things that other schools of poetry have not previously been able to do. In Strand’s poem, the poetry itself is what’s being eaten. The speaker describes himself as one might describe a dog, and he is feeding on poems which bring him joy. He almost appears unable to control himself, going so far as to lick the librarian’s hand. The poetry he has eaten appears to transform him, until he claims, “I am a new man” (line 16).

Both poems are written in free verse, although Strand’s poem uses a different stanzas while Simpson’s poem is composed of only one stanza. The linguistic device in Simpson’s poem is an emphasis on how each word sounds, while in Strand’s poem, the emphasis is on a very simple sentence structure, which helps convey the narrative. Additionally, Strand’s poem follows a linear narrative path, whereas Simpson’s poem is purely descriptive. Ultimately, however, the personification used in both poems portrays poetry as a physical object that can either consume other objects, or be consumed itself, which is the heart of each poem’s theme.

  • Simpson, L. (1963). American Poetry. In Poems in the English Language.
  • Strand, M. (1968). Eating Poetry. In Poems in the English Language.

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