Poetry, Food, and the Search for the Sublime

by John Coward

Poetry often tackles the big issues of human existence—love, death, God, the meaning of life, and so on. This is good and right, because poetry—distilled language in search of deeper meanings—is suited to the quest for purpose and reflection. When it is powerfully shaped and emotionally true, poetry can be both beautiful and sublime, an illuminated pathway to transcendence.

That said, let’s talk about food.

Seriously, food—because there’s a link between poetry and food. Food, like poetry, can be beautiful, even sublime. What’s more: many poets like to eat and, when they can afford it, they like to eat well.  Not always fancy, mind you, but food that is rich as well as satisfying.

Poetry and food share the pleasures of the senses. Reading beautiful words, shaping the syllables in your mouth, letting the language roll off the tongue—that’s sensuous, like biting into an overripe peach and savoring the juicy sweetness.

Cooking, too, can be sublime. Consider the act of breadmaking, which involves measuring flour, adding water and yeast, kneading dough, watching the dough rise, shaping the dough, and smelling the fresh loaves as they turn golden-brown in the oven. What poet or poetry lover wouldn’t find this a sensuous experience?

The link between poetry and food was made plain some years ago in Victoria McCabe’s literary cookbook, John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets. McCabe collected more than one hundred recipes, including some classical European dishes, such as Richard Hugo’s Fettuccine Verdi al Forno (even the name sounds sensuous), as well as others that are more basic, such as Jim Harrison’s A Sort of Purist-Type Chili, which starts with five pounds of cubed chuck, includes fifteen (fifteen!) whole garlic cloves, and then simmers for eight hours.

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A poet herself, McCabe offered a recipe called Gruel, which consists of two major ingredients: rice and a can of chicken noodle soup. Season with salt and pepper. This recipe doesn’t seem exactly sensuous, but McCabe claims it is “better than it sounds.” McCabe also highlights a practical advantage for poets and writers: “Gruel is a hearty meal and is extremely cheap to make.”

But perhaps my favorite recipe in John Keats’s Porridge is from the great Southern poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, whose recipe is called simply Recipe. It consists of two ounces of Jack Daniels Black Label, two ounces of non-chlorinated water, and two cubes of ice. Warren saves the most potent ingredient for last: “½ hour in which to meditate on the goodness of God.”

That last part—that’s where we can search for the sublime.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).





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